Funding cuts jeopardizing health, safety in federal buildings

Without at least $350 million per year, federal buildings could soon fall into disrepair

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

Sean Kilpatrick/CP

OTTAWA — Officials warned the government late last year that without a significant boost in repair funds, aging and crumbling federal buildings could soon become unfit for workers and jeopardize health and safety.

The situation outlined in briefings to Public Services Minister Judy Foote in November, shortly after the Liberals took office and Foote took up her ministerial posting, appeared dire.

The department was so cash-strapped that it could no longer pay for building inspections used to uncover health and safety risks and identify required repairs.

Utilities and services could stop without additional funding, say the documents, obtained by The Canadian Press under the Access to Information Act.

And service levels had fallen so far that they were “well below” what the government’s private service providers were giving their non-government clients. In the last fiscal year, officials calculated they needed at least $200 million to cover a budget shortfall and operate at minimal service levels.

Going forward, department officials estimated they would need at least $350 million a year to pay for badly needed repairs and maintenance work that had been scaled back for years under budget cuts instituted by the previous Conservative government. The money would cover what the documents describe as an annual shortfall in funding that meant the government “cannot repair its portfolio” of buildings.

The Liberals set aside $248 million for repairs and maintenance to federal buildings so far this fiscal year, which would be $100 million short of what officials estimated is needed.

A spokeswoman for Foote said the department didn’t recommend the Liberals spend $350 million in the 2016 budget and that the number was a “preliminary forecast” for possible requirements.

Jessica Turner said in an email that the government remained “committed to providing safe, healthy and productive work environments for federal employees and occupants of buildings it owns and manages.”

She said the government always prioritizes work related to health and safety issues.

Public Services and Procurement Canada acts as custodian for 7.3 million square metres of office space used by about 265,000 public servants spread across 98 federal departments and agencies. That is just over one-third of the total space spread through more than 30,500 federal buildings, which includes laboratories, police detachments, airports and prisons.

It is one of the largest and most diverse real estate portfolios in Canada, but it is aging and falling apart.

The briefing materials to Foote say that about one-third of federal buildings are rated as being in poor condition. The department said the rating doesn’t mean the building poses a risk to anyone inside, just that is shows signs of deterioration and could use some work.

Overall, federal buildings are rated as “fair,” the government said.

Many large, federally owned buildings such as the Lester B. Pearson building, which houses Global Affairs Canada, were built in the 1970s and 1980s and are in need of complete rehabilitation, the documents say.

The capital budget for projects has not increased much since 1994, the documents say, nor was the fund designed to cover large-scale projects to preserve historically significant buildings like the Supreme Court.

The Liberals set aside $30 million this fiscal year for capital work on many of these aging buildings. The 2016 budget also earmarked $2.1 billion over the next five years for repairs and retrofits of federal buildings.

Money has also been set aside in the budget to upgrade federally owned bridges and dams, or so-called engineering assets. The five-year cost of maintaining these assets is about $179 million and the Liberals set aside, but have yet to approve, $51 million for the cause.

Foote’s briefing notes say that without timely investments, parts of these bridges and dams could fail because of their age and that could mean “injury, death, property damage and expensive repairs.”

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