A citizens watchdog group is accusing the District of Saanich of being “disingenuous at best” over the actual cost of its redesigned website.
The charge comes from a group called Grumpy Taxpayers of Greater Victoria, who filed a Freedom of Information (FOI) request into the cost of the redesign after a newspaper report published Sept. 3 stated the district had paid Randstad Interim Inc. $224,000 in what the report calls management consulting fees to redesign the website Saanich.ca.
According to the FOI, the total cost of the project, including management consulting fees but not internal staff time, was $453,213.77. The group subsequently released a statement that read in part the redesign had “escalated to $450,000, double what was originally made public.”
Kelsie McLeod, a spokesperson for the District of Saanch, confirmed the figure, but challenged the statement that costs had doubled as incorrect and out of context. She said the figure quoted in September did not amount to a formal announcement of the project’s total cost. The district, she said, received a specific question about consulting fees for Ranstand. “And that is what we provided.”
Karen Harper, a spokesperson for the group, acknowledged that the published report spoke of management consulting fees. But the district was “less than transparent” in failing to release the full cost of the project at the time, she said.
“[Saanich] made a decision to go public with the $224,000 figure,” said Harper. “They could have chosen the real number, because they know it. They know the real number and they didn’t [release it].”
McLeod said the district was not trying to hide anything. “It was not about withholding a specific figure,” she said. “It was about responding to a specific question that we had been asked.”
She added that documents detailing the full cost of the project have been available for several months.
At least two public documents available at Saanich.ca come close to matching the figure found in the FOI. The first – a staff document dated June 7, 2016 and received by the district’s legislative division June 8 – recommends council add a total $235,000 to Ranstand’s original contract that the previous council had awarded in 2014. The quoted figure of $224,000 came out of that budget.
The second are the minutes of the June 20 council meeting, when council approved the request for additional funding. The minutes record no dissenting votes and state the district had built funds in the 2016 and 2017 information technology capital budgets for web development.
Harper acknowledged that information about the cost increase has been available since June. She said that she discovered the June 7 memo to council after she had received the FOI documents and sent out the press release announcing the results of the FOI request, a sequence of events that raises questions about the motivation of the group. For example, it could appear as if the group was trying to discredit the district by creating the appearance of secrecy, where none existed.
Harper does not buy this argument. The district should have been more open, because it was ultimately the district that went public with the $224,000 figure, she said. “I shouldn’t have to troll [for that figure],” she said. “It should be available, so when they chose to make that public announcement, they should have made it correctly. It is as simple as that. ”
Harper says her group also remains comfortable with language that speaks of escalating costs.
“They are escalating costs, if you go from the original proposal to where they went,” she said. “Let’s face it, council did this in June. The whole thing was over in September. Those costs had already escalated.”
According to the June 7 memo, the overall project budget increased from a total of $350,000 to $434,000, figures later viewed by council.
While these figures do not match the rhetoric of the group’s release, they confirm a cost increase.
“At the end of the day, the concern that I have ultimately is that this kind of scope-creep, this type of budget-creep is exactly the kind of thing that puts Saanich in a position that it is in,” said Harper, a long-time local advocate for financial sustainability.
Harper said this issue also underscores the need for the district to review its rules around staff granting authority to approve contracts below certain values. According to the memo, staff – not council – had approved the original contract under its signing authority.
While council does not need to approve every project, it should perhaps review staff’s spending authority level, said Harper. “$200,000 [the current level requiring council’s approval] is perhaps too high,” she said. “And the other thing is: what is the nature of the contract? If you set out a contract that is firm, then Randstad would have to complete the work. You would have to go to council to get more money.”
McLeod confirmed the accuracy of the figures found in the June 7 memo. “We acknowledge that the budget (for the website project) is over,” she said, pointing to the length and complexity of the project.
McLeod said Saanich has been mindful of taxpayers’ dollars throughout this project and went through a rigorous RFP process to select a project management consultant and a web provider.
According to the June 7 memo, two factors contributed to the need for additional funding: the purchase of a product from Victoria-based Atomic Crayon, later identified as a content management system that allows staff to update content themselves, and additional time and resources for a web editor to “ensure that all content for the new website was citizen-centric, of a similar voice and easy to read and comprehend.”