` Columbia Journal- SECRET & ILLEGAL
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By Barry O'Neill

What went wrong in Maple Ridge

Liberal MLA Ken Stewart, former mayor Al Hogarth and some of the newly elected district council in Maple Ridge, B.C., supported a secretive public private partnership that has been ruled illegal. Their mistakes will cost the taxpayers millions.

That's what a CUPE BC investigative report into the redevelopment of the downtown core shows. It is a solid indictment of the people who failed to question this boondoggle of a deal, and the former mayor has paid the political price of going along with it.

Our report also shows that the Maple Ridge taxpayer is getting bilked $20-25 million more than the project was supposed to cost.

We have a sitting MLA who is on public record supporting this illegal P3. He is in Victoria promoting the Campbell Liberal agenda of privatization in towns like Maple Ridge, knowing that the deal he endorsed was wrong-headed, secret and illegal.

Although council had plenty of opportunity to question the deal, they did not do so. New mayor Kathy Morse saw fit to distance herself from the P3 deal and that probably helped her get elected. But there is no escaping the fact that several councillors sat back and did nothing as the bean counters and district senior staff pushed through this taxpayer rip-off.

Consultants' reports backing the P3 deal were thoroughly examined in the CUPE investigation. Financial assumptions about the project appear to have been made by BDO Dunwoody and KPMG consulting firms. The 40-page report cites Freedom of Information Act documents, meeting minutes, newspaper interviews, lawsuits and public statements to back up its findings.

The Maple Ridge story illustrates how P3s threaten not only public sector jobs and family security, but also the community. It is a case of a privatization project that has gone disastrously wrong.

The findings in the CUPE report are disturbing and even shocking. They are also damning evidence against using P3s. Here is a sampling. The BDO Dunwoody accountant's report on the downtown core development project was flawed and based on at least $20 million of faulty assumptions deliberately constructed to favour the P3. Yet the district claimed the accountant's report was an independent, professional evaluation that supported the decision to proceed with a P3. BDO Dunwoody continues to act as auditors for the district and is involved in the review of the redevelopment project. There is no evidence from any minutes of public or in-camera meetings that any councillor scrutinized or questioned the accuracy of the report. Yet both the present council (1999 - 2002) and the previous one (1996 - 1999) were provided with copies. The district assured the public that the agreements were legal despite conflicting advice. The district chose to proceed. The project was subsequently ruled illegal by the B.C. Court of Appeal. The district assured the public that the ministers of finance and municipal affairs had pronounced the development a worthy project. Yet there is no record of any comment by either minister. The district prevented the project going to a referendum because they feared it would not pass. Ken Stewart, the present Liberal MLA for Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows, signed the contract with the project developer. One of the principle owners of that development firm has managed two of Stewart's political campaigns. He has also donated to his election campaigns and was his business associate for many years. The project will cost the taxpayers of Maple Ridge more than $60 million. About $35 million is still owed, and that number will climb significantly if the district borrows the money to pay off the debt. If the agreements are allowed to stand, the developer will receive payouts of more than $31 million in 2006 and 2007.

If P3s mean losing control of public facilities and services to the private sector, then they are a bad investment for the taxpayers of this province. More often than not they have been a bad deal.

P3s have been fraught with risks and they have failed to deliver the benefits that their proponents promise. What happened in Maple Ridge is the story of one such failure.

Barry O'Neill is president of CUPE BC. For a copy of the report, go to www.cupe.bc.ca.

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