City council will soon be tasked with deciding if it is time to bring the multi-million dollar expansion of the local fire hall back to the drawing board.

At tomorrow night’s regular meeting, council is set to decide whether to follow staff’s recommendation to hit pause on the project, which has more than doubled in cost in the past three years — from an estimated $2.2 million to $5 million.

Further borrowing or using more tax dollars would be required if council chooses to proceed with the existing plan, said Sheila Thiessen, the city’s acting CAO. As the new cost estimate far exceeds what the city has budgeted, staff recommends the plan does not proceed, Thiessen wrote in a report to council.

“The number is different enough that it is not going to happen without a redesign,” said Sean Smith, the city’s director of corporate services. “Sometimes if it is close you can say ‘We’ll cut this, we’ll cut that’ and you can get where you need to go, but with the wild variance in those numbers, it is going to have to be a different plan.”

There are health and safety concerns, primarily around decontamination and men’s and women’s facilities, that need to be addressed in the 47-year-old building.

Proper decontamination of firefighter gear and clothing is an issue the renovation was aimed at addressing, through the addition of a specific decontamination room and an area for turnout gear all located separately from the decontaminated area.

“We don’t have a decontamination facility, we are washing gear on the floor and [although] we do have a laundry sink, it’s not sanitary,” said Tomkinson.

At the moment the fire hall has just one shower in the entire building, which is located on the administrative side of the hall which is supposed to be the clean area.

“You take people who are contaminated with bad stuff from fires or blood born pathogens, and they actually are contaminated, they would have to come through the clean side of the hall to even access the shower,” said Tomkinson.

The renovation would add in a washer and dryer to the fire hall for their volunteer firefighters to wash the clothes they wear under their gear as opposed to taking those contaminated clothes home to wash.

Such concerns would been to be addressed moving forward regardless, Smith added. He explained those factors are driving staff to recommend they investigate new plans for the expansion.

“That is a difficult outcome for everybody involved, but we will find the best way through it we possible can,” Smith said.

The price hike can be boiled down to increased construction costs and a lack of competitive interest from the “bigger players” in construction that can get the job done at a lower price, Smith said.

“It is a big issue that does have significant impacts on our community.” – Sean Smith

Through discussions with Housing Minister Selena Robinson — who was in town on March 22 for a housing announcement — Brown said she learned the current pace of construction in B.C. is so rapid that demand is high and prices are skyrocketing.

“The quote was three years old to start with,” Smith said. “It had contingency built in, but clearly not anticipating the type of rise [in construction costs] we saw,” Smith said.

“The challenge of getting trades to come to Merritt to work on projects adds additional costs and uncertainty to any project,” Thiessen wrote in her report. “This was experienced  by the city with the roofing project at the Nicola Valley Aquatic Centre, where the project took several months longer than anticipated as the contractor could not get local labour.”

The city has until Feb. 13, 2023 to embark on a new course of action, Thiessen wrote, as that is the date the loan authorization bylaw for the project expires.

The existing fire hall location study is from 2012, and pre-dates the closure of the Tolko mill in Merritt. Due to changes in development demands, Thiessen said a new study would be needed.

“In addition, a plan for addressing the health and safety issues related to decontamination and areas appropriate for all fire fighters will need to be addressed,” she wrote.

The $5 million dollar price tag is a set back to achieving the planned improvements for the fire hall, Thiessen concluded in her report, and said the city should take a step back and look at the needs of the city before proceeding.

“It is a big issue that does have significant impacts on our community,” Smith said.