Renfrew town hall renovations completed two years late with a $2 million price tag

Renfrew – Renfrew’s CAO was again the bearer of bad news when he presented a report to council on the history on the five-year renovation of Renfrew Town Hall.

Similar to the Ma-te-Way recreation centre expansion project, this project was also filled with several problems resulting in a two-year delay and a ten-fold increase in the original budget from $200,000 to $2 million.

During the April 9 regular council meeting, Robert Tremblay’s report, Town Hall Renovation Project Close-Out Report, highlighted several examples of project mismanagement beginning in 2018 when a budget was set without a proper schedule outlining the phases of construction. As well, a budget was set without engineering or architectural drawings approved by the previous council prior to the start of any renovations.

The final section of the report, Lessons Learned, contains 14 findings/recommendations staff will develop into policies and procedures and bring forward to council for final approval at a future date.

Among his other findings, he noted the inability to conduct regularly scheduled inspections for contaminants such as lead paint, mold and asbestos, combined with a lack of up-to-date building condition assessments resulted in several major and costly repairs. He noted some of the repairs could have been addressed with far less cost if discovered at the beginning of the process.

Mr. Tremblay began his employment with the town in July 2022 and took over project management of the renovations in late 2022 after Kevin Hill, the town’s former recreation director who was in charge of this project and the Ma-te-Way expansion, left his employment with the town.

“The 2018 budget included $200,000 for renovations and the 2019 budget identified $25,000 for an additional window on the second floor,” he said. “The 2021 budget approved a $1,100,011 project inclusive of the window and that amount was carried forward to 2022 as the work was not completed. The project was delayed, and 2022 actual costs were $202,699 (after HST rebate) with the balance of the budget carried forward to 2023. The 2023 budget had $600,000 financed from the facilities reserve bringing total costs for the project to $2,012,889.36.”

The Renfrew Police station (later the OPP detachment) was built as a small brown brick building on the back of Low Square in 1972. A new town hall was constructed as an addition to the police station, in the 1980s. The second-floor addition housed municipal offices, council chambers and was used as an Ontario Court of Justice satellite location during the day when council chambers were not in use.

In February 2017, the entire building became town hall offices and Ontario Court of Justice offices when the police moved to a new location at 450 O'Brien Road.

Mr. Tremblay explained the town hall project was undertaken to address the vacant police detachment space, improve accessibility to meet legislative requirements, and to refresh office and meeting space throughout the building. The renovations were also necessary as the Attorney General’s Office did not renew its 10-year lease for court space after December 31, 2023, and there was the potential to attract new tenants to the building.

His review identified the space vacated by the OPP in early 2017 was unoccupied for over a year and in 2018 the council of the day was informed that minor repairs and renovations were required and council set aside $200,000 in the annual budget for the work to be completed.

Renovations Delayed

Mr. Tremblay said setting a budget before any engineering or architectural drawings were completed is a major reason for the unexpected budget increase and delays.

“Architectural services were not secured until August 2022,” he said. “We have learned some lessons in the last little while. Engineering design should be completed so that we have a true sense of what the cost will be and that should be detailed, reviewed and then we set the budget. In this case, we set the budget in advance of architectural services.”

The first serious attempt to renovate the building began after council approved the award of architectural services for the project to Shoalts and Zaback Architects Ltd. It was also at this time when Mr. Tremblay began to discover basic routine inspections were not carried out and this would lead to unexpected and unbudgeted expenses.

When construction began, it was discovered the HVAC system needed a complete overhaul and there was a hole in the roof that needed immediate attention. Those issues, along with the removal of hazardous materials, resulted in costly repairs and more delays.

While these repairs were going on, the town was in contact with the local health unit as they were seeking a smaller location and planned on vacating their space at Renfrew County Place. Both parties agreed to a long-term contract beginning in January 2024.

“A 10-year lease was entered into in 2023 for 1,627 square feet and it generated $18.62 per square foot with built-in annual increases,” he said. “I’ll note that is greater than what the former director of recreation negotiated for the lease spaces at Ma-te-Way.”

In addition to the health unit, the town pursued an innovative service model with five partners developing a “business hub” and this group would also occupy space in the town hall once renovations were completed.

A lease was negotiated with Ottawa Valley Business Hive consisting of the Community Future Development Corporation of Renfrew County, Renfrew & Area Chamber of Commerce, the Downtown Renfrew Business Improvement Area, and Enterprise Renfrew County.

“The space is roughly 1,267 square feet and the hive generates $1,000 in monthly revenue,” he added.

Council Weighs In

Councillor Kyle Cybulski raised the issue of budgetary expenses taking place without council authorization.

“We are missing $560,000 that had not made it to committee that I was aware of and this is the first time it’s making it to council, so how does $560,000 get spent without coming to one of these rooms for discussion?” he asked.

Mr. Tremblay explained the majority of costs were approved by the previous council when they finalized the $1.1 million budget in May 2022 and the budget was carried over into the current council’s term of office.

He noted several instances of poor planning occurred prior to him taking over project management from the former recreation director, including the practice of seeking out potential tenants and making promises before any costing or construction was even started.

He added that through the “Lessons Learned,” if given the choice, he would not have started the project in 2022 and 2023 and the town was forced into the construction time frame due to promises made by the former recreation director to potential tenants.

Those promises were impossible to fulfill due to the delay in construction because of unexpected repairs that ordinarily would have been found through routine scheduled inspections.

“The onus of why we were doing it is that the former director promised the Police Services Board (PSB) of Renfrew space in the former detachment for the new connection center they received funding for,” he said. “I was meeting with them in August (2022) in a room with a hole in the roof and mold and asbestos. I had to say ‘no, sorry, you are not going to be able to move in here’.”

Council directed staff to return at a future date with a policy or working group model to be implemented so proper oversight is in place for any future large-scale capital projects. Part of the new oversight mandate is to include regular written progress and financial reports submitted to committee and council.

Bruce McIntyre, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Eganville Leader