City managers hide report for 20 months

By David Broadland, September 2012

An engineering report obtained through an FOI estimates $34 million is needed to bring 16 City-owned buildings up to seismic code.

The contents of an engineering consultant’s seismic risk assessment of City-owned buildings obtained by Focus through provisions of the Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act suggest the City of Victoria has been misrepresenting the financial liabilities it faces by at least $34 million. And the study’s findings lead inevitably to the question of whether senior City managers have been making rational decisions about how to manage the risk associated with potential loss of life during a seismic event.

According to the City’s Director of Corporate Communications Katie Josephson, the work entailed in the $40,000 study “was completed during the last half of 2009 and through 2010,”  and a final version delivered to the City by engineering consultants Read Jones Christoffersen in December, 2010—three weeks after the referendum on the Johnson Street Bridge. The report, which looked at 16 City-owned structures, estimated the extent to which they met current seismic code requirements, provided an estimated cost for seismic retrofit and created a ranking system for determining which projects were most urgent.

The report included the City-owned Victoria Conference Centre and its parkade, the grandstand and administration structure at Royal Athletic Park, various public works buildings on Garbally Road, administration buildings and community centres. According to the City, the aggregate peak occupancy of the 16 buildings is 3425 people.

Read Jones Christoffersen considered life safety, cost, and “level of importance” in ranking the buildings.

The “Royal Athletic Park Administration and Entrance Pavilion,” with a potential peak occupancy of 1000 people, ranked first (highest priority) in two out of three rankings. The report noted the structure “is estimated at roughly 20 percent of current code,” and ball-parked the cost of a seismic retrofit at $1 million.

Also high in the rankings is Fairfield Gonzales Community Centre, which has a peak occupancy of 150 people, is “in the order of 20 percent” of code requirements, and has an estimated cost to retrofit of $375,000.

Read Jones Christoffersen estimated the Victoria Conference Centre and its parkade were both at approximately 62 percent of current code requirements. In spite of having a peak occupancy of 1500 people, the estimated cost for a seismic retrofit—$20 million—pushed that facility to the bottom, or close to the bottom, in each of the three ranking systems.

Four of the public works buildings in the study were estimated to be at only 10 percent of code requirements for seismic resistance. With a total peak occupancy of 30 people, the report estimated their retrofit would cost $2.5 million in total.

In March 2011, Focus filed an FOI request for all seismic risk assessments the City had completed. The City’s legislative services department made serial attempts to deny access to three documents, and only provided the Read Jones Christoffersen report when a formal complaint was filed with the Office of the Information and Privacy Commissioner in August.

The City administration’s suppression of the report begs the question: Why hasn’t the information been made public? Senior City managers have known for 20 months that these 16 buildings will add at least $34 million to stated unfunded capital costs. (Having a déjà vu moment? The City also held back a seismic assessment of Firehall No. 1 for 18 months before going public last October.)

Questions emailed to City Manager Gail Stephens and General Manager of Operations Peter Sparanese went unanswered by our press deadline.

The City’s Josephson downplayed the report’s findings. “As you’ll see on page one of the introduction,” Josephson pointed out, “the evaluation prepared by Read Jones Christoffersen ‘was the initial stage in a process to identify which buildings should be considered a priority for possible seismic upgrades.’ It was further outlined in the same paragraph that a more detailed analysis and accurate budgets would need to be prepared. This study was commissioned as a preliminary review of civic buildings to assist City engineers in developing policy on prioritization and the development of a long-term capital plan is underway. When more detailed analysis and accurate budgets are established, the capital plan will be updated and considered by council.”

But don’t all exploratory engineering reports allude to the need for further study and refinement of costs? And does that mean they should be kept secret from council and the public? When Delcan’s Dr Joost Meyboom made his first recommendation about the seismic vulnerability of the Johnson Street Bridge, he told City staff the bridge should be repaired and seismically retrofitted. He offered a first estimate of cost ($8.6 million) and said, “I would suggest that our current study be extended to refine the retrofit concept and the associated costs.”

In that case, too, senior City managers kept the “initial stage in the process” hidden from councillors and the public. Meyboom’s recommendation wasn’t made public until it was rooted out by FOI. By then the price had risen dramatically. City managers are now hoping a new bridge won’t cost more than $93 million, over ten times Meyboom’s first estimate. Given that outcome, is there any good reason City staff should be left to work out of public sight? 

Victoria City Councillor Geoff Young doesn’t seem to think so. He confirmed the Read Jones Christoffersen report hadn’t been seen by councillors. Was he concerned the report had been withheld for 20 months?

“I am very conscious that since the report was produced,” Young said, “council has spent much time considering priorities, budgets, and capital needs. In those discussions it would have been very valuable to have had the information in this report in front of us.”

Young added, “I am very concerned that the whole range of seismic problems and the price list [in the report] have not been presented to council. I have already expressed my view that had the condition of the firehall been known at the time we were still discussing our approach to the bridge, the council might have considered the [less expensive rehabilitation] options seriously, instead of insisting on the rehabilitation meeting 100 percent of current standards for post-disaster bridges.”

The safety implications of the Read Jones Christoffersen report perturb Young: “I know that all of us on council were very aware of the need for public safety; knowing that many of our employees work in buildings that are only at 20 percent of current codes might have changed some of my colleagues’ views as to the best use of funds—and probably more people among our staff work in buildings that are only at 10 percent of current seismic [code] than would normally be on the bridge at any given time. Again, the need to make one bridge perfectly safe pales against the need to increase the safety of public buildings in which perhaps hundreds of our citizens may be gathered.”

With the rising cost for a new bridge strangling the City’s ability to address the needs raised in the Read Jones Christoffersen report, Young thinks a change in course is needed. “Saving perhaps 10 or 20 or 30 million dollars by making do with a refurbished bridge built to slightly lower standards (preserving life but not usable after the disaster) makes a lot more sense when, with that same money, we could save the building value, and perhaps lives, within many of our buildings. I say ‘perhaps lives’ because the report does not translate the seismic code percentages into loss of life [or] loss of building value, and I do not have the technical expertise to make that translation. Based on my small knowledge of the Christchurch experience I suspect that a building meeting only 10 percent of code is very bad for the occupants in a major quake, but cannot be sure. Adding this component to the analysis would be one of the first things we should ask for in ordering our priorities.”

The Delcan report estimated that peak occupancy of the Johnson Street Bridge was likely to be 35 people. It’s sobering to consider that number now in light of the 3425 people that could be at risk in the 16 public buildings covered by the Read Jones Christoffersen report.

The Delcan report noted that even in a “major seismic event” there would likely be no loss of life on the existing bridge, as is. For a “severe seismic event,” they predicted a 20 percent fatality rate and a loss of seven lives. Yet the same senior City managers who have  known the life-safety basics of the Read Jones Christoffersen report since late 2009 recommended to councillors they spend $93 million to replace the bridge.

Release of the Read Jones Christoffersen report comes at a critical moment. The City, for reasons unexplained, extended by three weeks the date by which the three companies in the running for the contract to build a replacement bridge were required to submit bids. This suggests more than one of the companies are having trouble meeting the City’s expectations on cost and/or design. If the bids come in above the City’s “affordability ceiling” of $93 million for the entire project, councillors—with the Read Jones Christoffersen report on the table—will have a hard time justifying an even costlier bridge.

David Broadland is the publisher of Focus.