Several Ottawa city councillors claim they were misled by city staff about a delay in the city's $2.1-billion Confederation Line, even after asking specific questions about the project during budget deliberations only days earlier.
On Friday the city's general manager of transportation, John Manconi, announced Rideau Transit Group (RTG) would not meet its May 24, 2018, deadline to hand the new light rail system over to the city.
Manconi, Mayor Jim Watson and city manager Steve Kanellakos had all been aware of the delay since late November, but the rest of city council and the public were only informed on Friday.
Even transit commission chair Stephen Blais and transportation committee chair Keith Egli were only informed Wednesday — after the 2018 budget had passed.
"It's frustrating because it seems the information was in their possession and it was clearly relevant to the budget," Coun. Diane Deans said Monday.
Budget based on July 1 opening
The city and RTG are still negotiating the new handover date, so It's not clear what impact the delay will have on the official opening of the line, if any.
That's a big problem, according to several councillors who say they were kept in the dark about the deadline issues and the impact that might have on the budget.
"I find it astonishing that that information did not come out during a very detailed budget discussion," Coun. Tobi Nussbaum said. "Clearly that's a problem."
The 2018 budget is based on the assumption the line will open by July 1, 2018. If that doesn't happen, OC Transpo's projected ridership and associated revenue could fall short.
OC Transpo also plans to lay off bus drivers and other transit staff once the trains start running, which will mean significant savings.
GM backtracks on penalties
During budget talks on Dec. 4, Nussbaum asked specifically about any financial impact should RTG fail to meet its deadlines and delay the opening.
Manconi replied that if that happened the city could simply withhold payment to RTG in order to recoup any losses. Manconi has since said the city hasn't decided if it will levy fines or withhold payments to RTG.
"We're working through all that right now," he said Friday.
That makes some councillors nervous about the city's ability to meet its budget projections.
But their questions will likely have to wait. There are no council or committee meetings at city hall until late January. Manconi promised to give councillors another update before the end of March, but would not say if RTG's new deadline will be revealed by then.
Asked on Friday who had been informed about the delay, Manconi replied, "everyone who needed to know." He said the mayor's office and the city manager have been kept up to date on every development.
"There's no secrets here," he said.
But Deans said withholding information from councillors is becoming a trend.
During budget deliberations last week the city treasurer revealed a surprise $10-million surplus. Moments later the mayor tabled a motion to spend the $10 million windfall on repairs to roads and other facilities.
The surplus was a news to only a few on council, most of whom had earned the mayor's ire by pitching an infrastructure levy that would break his promise to cap tax increases at two per cent.
The mayor's move rendered that levy unnecessary.
"It was pretty blatant and shocking to me what happened during the budget last week," Deans said.
It all points to a "new and concerning trend," Deans said.
"Council can only make good decisions if we have a complete and timely information."