Tentative approval for Lewis Farms rec centre, pending last look for possible savings

Final approval for a $300-million recreation centre in the west end is on hold for another year while city council awaits a report on potential design tweaks and other cost-saving opportunities.

City council voted Thursday to hold the necessary debt room in abeyance while waiting for a report to come back in November 2019 that will include a “value engineering exercise” for the Lewis Farms recreation centre and library.

It won’t be a major “hack and slash,” said Ward 1 Coun. Andrew Knack, but it might mean losing some of the features added on with the approval of the executive committee back in 2016, such as the deep dive tank.

When committee approved adding on a 53-metre swimming pool and the dive tank, the full cost of doing so wasn’t clear, Knack said. For example, the $1.8 million for the diving platforms was weighed, but the cost of changing the height of the building to accommodate the platforms wasn’t.

At its present cost, the debt used to fund the project will mean about a one per cent tax increase spread out over several years. But none of that increase will be felt in 2019, while the report is being worked on.

The amendment to the city’s capital budget approved Thursday also includes a plan to reach out to neighbouring municipalities about the possibility of cost sharing.

“Add up the nickels and dimes, and the dollars start to make more sense. Having a comprehensive partnership program, while individually they might not add up to much, together they might make a significant dent,” said Ward 5 Coun. Sarah Hamilton.

Mayor Don Iveson said he’s already spoken to other Edmonton metro mayors about the possibility of regional co-operation on funding for recreation facilities.

“A number of them suggested Edmonton should actually be talking to them about contributions for recreation centres. The invitation was put out there, and the new provincial laws require neighbours to have these kinds of conversations,” Iveson said.

During the debate on the amendment, some on council queried how the cost of the Lewis Estates proposal ballooned to double what was spent on other projects.

“A $150-million rec centre gets you a heck of a rec centre. So why would this be any different?” Ward 7 Coun. Tony Caterina asked.

According to administration’s response to written questions, Lewis Farms is similar to other large rec centres like Meadows and Clareview in cost per square metre, but Lewis Farms is also twice the size.

City manager Linda Cochrane explained that the “scope creep” –– adding features like the dive tank –– happened following community consultations and incorporating feedback from user groups.

Police chopper dream flies on

Meanwhile, debate about funding a replacement for the Air 2 police helicopter on Thursday evolved into speculation about police drones chasing autonomous vehicles down Edmonton streets of the future.

City council narrowly voted to keep plans for a $6.2-million cost of a helicopter alive, but also passed a motion that means the funding will be contingent on a report coming back that explores creative options for paying for the chopper, such as a lease, buying a used helicopter and exploring a partnership with the RCMP.

Council asked police representatives about the likelihood that technology and related law will change in the coming years that will mean police will be able to use drones to do the work Air 1 and Air 2 do now.

“I’m not sold that we need to buy a brand-new $6-million helicopter for 20 more years of business as usual,” Iveson said.

The motion council passed changes the source of the helicopter money to borrowing up to the full $6.2 million, to be held in debt room, and directs administration to come back with a report on the police paying off the chopper by finding savings in their existing costs. The police service’s day-to-day budget accounts for the city’s largest operating expense: a Wednesday vote on the force’s budget for the next four years earmarked about $412-million from the property tax base to go towards policing.

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