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Procurement deals bad for business: access to info request on NWPTA

The Association of Consulting Engineering Companies of British Columbia has complained that the Alberta-B.C. Trade, Investment and Labour Mobility Agreement (TILMA) is “prompting governments to take short-cuts on selecting bids for city projects,” according to a report this week in the online news journal The Tyee.

TILMA, which changed names to the New West Partnership Trade Agreement when Saskatchewan joined, “was supposed to expand inter-provincial trade in goods and labour, and increase competition,” writes Adam Pez in The Tyee. “But it’s also led to a flood of public project bids for local governments, creating headaches for both engineering consultants and city staff.”

Zane Sloan, a consultancy engineer speaking on behalf of the Association of Engineers of BC, conferred with the assessment, telling The Tyee that the result of the procurement rules in the agreement will be poorer roads, buildings, sewers and other infrastructure.

The article is the result of an access to information request by Caelie Frampton with the Sustainable Communities Initiative. Frampton’s report on her FOI into the NWPTA explains that “the procurement obligations under TILMA and it’s successor the New West Trade Partnership Agreement (NWTPA) require that municipalities openly tender contracts over $75 000 for goods and services through the provincial BC Bid, including engineering services.”

This has meant that consulting engineers in B.C. “must spend an inordinate amount of time and money preparing proposals,” according to a briefing note by Matthew Carnaghan, acquired by Frampton. The flip side of increasing the number of bids on any one government project, say the engineers, is that city councils are simply picking the lowest bidder to save time.

A second briefing note obtained by Frampton offers an example of this at work, which we’ve referred to here on the Council of Canadians website. It’s the case of Summerland Waste Services, a local firm that lost a bid to the much larger out-of-province BFI Canada.

“Municipal politicians and staff were both quoted in the news saying they awarded to BFI due to TILMA,” writes Frampton. “They specifically cited TILMA’s ‘No Obstacles’ clause,” which “says that each party shall ensure that their measures ‘do not operate to restrict or impair trade between or through the territories or the Parties, or investment or labour mobility through the Parties.'”

If a municipality is found to have breached this clause the penalties can be steep — as high as $5 million, to be paid by the host provincial government. In the briefing note, Carnaghan insists that neither TILMA nor the NWPTA require a municipal government to pick the lowest bidder, just that the process be open and non-discriminatory. But clearly this was how Summerland councillors understood the agreement to work, since the contract was given to the multinational garbage collector over the longstanding local contractor based on alleged 20 per cent savings but amidst concerns the firm was undercutting wages.

Also, in the same breath as claiming the NWPTA does not require the lowest bid to win, Carnaghan states that, “The savings that will accrue to Summerland households is evidence that the agreements are effective in ensuring that taxpayers receive better value for their money.”

The Tyee reports that TILMA/NWPTA is already having an impact on Vancouver area municipalities, also. New Westminster staff took three weeks to sort through sewer separation proposals this year, according to Angus English, vice president and district leader for AECOM Canada.

“English said some members of New Westminster city staff let him know the burden of thoroughly reviewing all the proposals they received was ‘killing’ them and as a result they were ‘trying to find ways to restrict or shortlist’,” says the article. “English said the city eventually went for the lowest consultancy bid of $85,000.”

The experience of B.C. cities under the TILMA or New West Partnership agreement should be a cautionary tale for those cities now being asked to make concessions on procurement to the European Union in ongoing CETA negotiations. The plan is sold to cities on the promise of a simplified, more open and transparent procurement process with savings for municipalities from more options. In reality, based on the accounts here, these trade deals could be putting lives at risk from poor quality bids, cost-cutting and hastily made decisions by local councils afraid of bringing on a trade dispute with a company.

These examples should also ward off moves by Manitoba Conservatives to force the province to join the NWPTA through a recently tabled private members bill. Long the hope of business groups like the Winnipeg Chamber of Commerce, the NDP government has resisted joining, and labour and other opposition has been strong.

Frampton has made her FOI requested documents available online here.

For more information on CETA and how to approach your municipal council about seeking an exemption from the agreement, click here.