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Difficulties with utilities construction crew staffing forces RDCK to end pilot project

The original idea was cost reduction and increased project control through in-house services

by Timothy Schafer

Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Nelson Daily

After two years struggling to recruit competent staff in all three required positions for an in-house utilities construction crew, the regional district is ending the pilot project.

The Regional District of Central Kootenay board of directors voted in late May to dissolve the pilot project and begin the sale and dissolution of the over $250,000 worth of equipment and tools purchased.

The original idea of cost reduction and increased project control through in-house services continues to have merit, said Uli Wolf, general manager of Environmental Services Utilities with the RDCK.

“However, at the current labour market it appears that the RDCK cannot be competitive enough to have continuous success,” he wrote in his report on the matter. “Staff acquisition and retention approaches would have to reviewed in order to make this approach successful in the future.”

The service — Utilities Construction Crew — carries a loan that amounts to approximately $312,000 in principal and 2023 interest. The original equipment purchases had an approximate original value of $254,000 in 2021.

Wolf said if a 35 per cent depreciation of the equipment was factored in the remaining value would be around $165,000.

As well, the service contains a reserve of $112,000, which is unspent money from the original equipment loan.

“Therefore, a dissolving of the service at this point has to assume a deficit of approximately $35,000, plus any administrative costs expended in 2023,” said Wolf.

A report will be brought back the board on how to distribute the deficit once all final costs are known.

The next steps would be to tender the completion of the Fauquier project and initiate the sale of the equipment purchased for the pilot.

Without the internal utilities construction crew in place some of the projects in the capital plan have to be tendered and delivered through external forces, Wolf explained.

Keeping it together

Three people formed the first construction crew in the spring of 2021 — a permanent site superintendent, a seasonal equipment operator and one labourer.

The location for the pilot was chosen with the Fauquier water system, in an area where the regional district had difficulty obtaining bids from private industry.

Wolf said the first pilot year was “plagued by several setbacks through external circumstances (COVID-19, record heat in July and August, nearby forest fire with evacuation of the community and shut down of the project, etc.).”

The next construction season was greeted with the resignation of the site superintendent, followed by the utilities operations manager (managed the crew and the project).

“Recruitment efforts over the late spring and early summer period of 2022 did not provide the intended results to be able to put a new construction crew together on short notice and to be effective for the 2022 construction season,” wrote Wolf.

The department was re-structured for 2023 and the pilot was included with the senior project manager position.

“Additional efforts were made to make the positions more attractive in order to increase chance of success in the hiring,” said Wolf. “In spite of these additional efforts and extended periods of advertising the RDCK was not able to attract sufficient interest from applicants to put together a full crew with the required industry skills to feel comfortable to continue that pilot project in 2023.”