In 2011, the borough of Villeray–St-Michel–Parc-Extension put out a call for bids to fix its sidewalks. The lowest private contractors’ bid came in 44 per cent over the borough estimate of roughly $500,000. It came from Mivela Construction, owned by Nicolo Milioto, whose name would crop up repeatedly at the Charbonneau Commission into corruption in the construction industry.
The borough decided to put its repairs on hold.
In 2012, it repeated the process. This time, the lowest bid was 25-per-cent higher than estimates. The sidewalks went unrepaired again.
This year, the borough decided to take the crumbling sidewalks into its own hands. On Wednesday, it declared it would be the first in the city to hand over all responsibility for sidewalk repairs to its blue-collar workers as part of a pilot project that could spread to other services. At an estimated $300,000, the expenditure is a drop in the bucket of the borough’s overall $66-million budget.
But it represents a 180-degree shift from the practice of contracting out almost all infrastructure repair work to the private sector on the argument it could supply better prices and quality because of greater competition, lower wages and greater expertise.
Widespread reporting that collusion among private sector contractors hiked prices on public-works contracts by 30 per cent for decades has shaken that assumption.
“With the scandals surrounding corruption and collusion, it was a little difficult to have confidence in the private sector,” borough mayor Anie Samson said. “It was difficult to know we were getting our money’s worth.”
If successful, the sidewalk experiment could extend to other services, Samson said.
Under a special agreement with the city’s blue-collar union, 15 of the borough’s blue-collar workers who worked part-time or on contract will receive training in concrete repair, and then work from May to September to repair the sidewalks. A smaller team that performed minor sidewalk repairs will continue as well.
The borough won’t know until the fall the exact costs per square metre of repair work and how they compare with private sector contracts. Even if it’s slightly more, it would be worth it for the greater flexibility in terms of scheduling work and to know they’re paying a fair price, Samson said. Extra layers of security instituted by Quebec to combat corruption have also slowed the contracting process.
Granting contracts to public service has risks, notes Steve Lafleur, policy analyst with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy. It is easier to hold private contractors accountable for deficiencies than government departments. Strikes, such as the six-week work stoppage that paralyzed garbage collection in Toronto in 2009, are a factor.
Cities in the U.S., like Indianapolis and Phoenix, allow municipal employees to compete with private-sector contractors on bids for services including garbage pickup and road repairs. In Tulsa, Okla., the city’s electricians, mechanics, plumbers and carpenters were able to outbid the private sector, Lafleur noted. Some municipalities give their blue collars bonuses if work is completed at a far lower cost than its private-sector equivalent, giving incentives for efficient, high-quality work.
Montreal city workers did almost all the work on water mains, sidewalks and roads up until the 1980s, but were almost entirely phased out by the 2000s.
Improved relations with unions, salaries that are similar to the private sector and laws guaranteeing essential services mean boroughs are able to give more assignments to their blue-collar workers. Samson’s borough had already started moving services like sidewalk and graffiti cleaning and some garbage collection in-house.
“With all that has been happening in Montreal, it was time for things to change,” she said.
The mayor’s office has said it’s in favour of having blue-collar workers perform more work, and promised an announcement on this issue in the coming weeks.