Burlington Election 2014: Pier

The pier is done – but at what cost?

Burlington pierNow that the pier is built, residents are determined to enjoy their investment. But ask whether we needed it at all, and whether it was worth the money spent, opinion remains split. Very few residents supported a pier “at any cost” to taxpayers and the city’s reputation. But that’s what we got.

Hits & Misses: From the beginning the pier was a “nice-to-have”. It may have made some sense when the cost was $6.1 million when approved in 2006. But over time, the bill grew and the project shrunk. Residents paid more and got less. Costs almost tripled to $15 million (and counting, as legal costs from unresolved litigation continue to mount); the pier was shortened, and the marina and wind turbine removed.

After problems arose during construction leading to a dispute with the original contractor and design engineer over the pier design, council chose to retender the project with a revised design by a 6-1 vote. I didn’t support the retender, which delayed the project by at least a year and added $5 million to the cost. I believed then, as I still do, that we could have completed the project faster for less money by working with the original contractor, who made multiple offers to complete the pier. A number of residents, including those with extensive experience in construction law, advised council at the time to work it out with the original parties, given that these kinds of disputes are almost always settled by mediation, rather than in court.

Burlington pier transparencyConstruction of the pier has been marred by pride, politics and poor information. After the retender, staff withheld information from council on faulty steel and the wind turbine, until it emerged under my questioning. Council got entrenched in a narrative that blamed the original contractor for problems on the pier, marring the ability to fairly assess multiple offers to complete the project. One of those came just before the 2010 election, and several after; did council members at the time want to avoid heading to the polls with a bigger pier budget? Would it have saved time and money to work with the original contractor? The full story has yet to be told, but will emerge in time.

The Road Ahead: I will continue to advocate for transparency and accountability on the pier including releasing the legal fees (now public, following a motion I brought to council); the costs and options considered to complete the pier; and any settlement reached (if the case proceeds to court, that is a public process).

There are important lessons to be learned from this chapter in Burlington’s history, if we are willing. Among them are the need to work quickly to resolve problems as they arise; to focus on solutions rather than laying blame and taking sides; to be transparent and accountable to residents, and to keep an open mind to consider information that may challenge preconceived opinions.

Once the full story is told, residents will be able to assess whether council has been good stewards of your trust and money.