Push for local involvement in new Mills construction

New Mills Memorial project in $400 million range

Concept drawing of a new Mills Memorial Hospital on current hospital grounds. A business plan to define the exact size and scope of the new facility is nearing completion. FILE PHOTO

Skeena BC Liberal MLA Ellis Ross is going to push for as much local participation in the construction of the new Mills Memorial Hospital.

And that includes using local labour and contract opportunities for local businesses, the MLA said last week.

“People here pay taxes so they should benefit from a project their taxes pay for,” Ross added.

Ross said the project to replace the current Mills Memorial, now nearly 60 years old and expected to cost in the area of $400 million, presents many opportunities for both local employment and local small business contracts.

Few details are so far known about how the new hospital will be built but typically in projects of this size, bids are made by one company or a group of companies well-experienced in substantial public sector construction projects for the overall contract. The successful bidder, or bidders, then subcontracts out portions of the project.

Ross said he’s going to advocate for sub-contracts to be of a size that local businesses will be able to enter bids.

And while he’ll be promoting the use of local labour on the project, exactly how that local labour will be hired concerns him. That’s because the provincial government earlier this year announced a broad policy called Community Benefits Agreements to have large-scale public sector projects use workers who are members of a select group of construction unions.

The intent is to boost local employment, train apprentices and hire more women and First Nations workers under the umbrella of union contracts signed with construction companies, the Province said when it unveiled program details.

But Ross said it would be wrong to force workers to join one of the 19 member unions of the British Columbia and Yukon Territory Building and Construction Trades Council, which is a signatory to the Community Benefits Agreement.

Companies involved in public sector construction projects would hire workers through a new provincial Crown corporation which in turn will sign contracts with the trade unions.

“That would put people in a bad spot, people who are desperate to have a job but who are forced to join a union,” said Ross. “I think it’s a misguided policy.”

He said he and other BC Liberal MLAs have so far been unsuccessful in finding out how the benefits program will rolls out across the province.

“This needs to be fair and open, not ensuring only a certain number of people get the benefit,” Ross continued.

So far that benefits agreement policy only applies to two large project areas in southern B.C.: the $1.3 billion Patullo Bridge replacement on the Lower Mainland and four-laning sections of the Trans Canada Highway, and the Province has yet to announce how it will come into play with other large projects such as the new Mills Memorial Hospital.

The agreement does permit non-union companies to bid on projects but if successful they must pay union wages and benefits.

In the meantime, the Northern Health Authority is in the final stages of preparing its business plan for the project, a document that will better define the costs and size of the new facility. The business plan must still be approved by the Province, a step that will then start the process of selecting an overall contractor. A construction start date is not yet known.

So far the Province is saying the new Mills will be twice the size of the current one but there’s no indication of how many beds it will contain. It will house a high-level trauma treatment centre. The current hospital has 42 beds, 10 of which are located at the regional psychiatric facility which is housed in the lower section of the hospital.

The new hospital is scheduled to be built on land Northern Health already owns between the current Mills and the Sande Overpass. When the new hospital is finished, the old one will be demolished to make room for a new parking area.

As construction planning continues, Northern Health has also formed what it calls a “business planning advisory committee” of local governments and First Nations among other parties.

A letter widely distributed in late summer from Northern Health chair Colleen Nyce does not specifically mention issues surrounding construction but she did say the committee “will have the opportunity to provide advice and recommendations to Northern Health on local considerations related to the project.”

There’s also the provision for community consultation.

The tax area for the Northwest Regional Hospital District include the western portion of the Regional District of Bulkey-Nechako stretching as far east as Houston, plus all communities in the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine, North Coast Regional District and Nisga’a lands.

There are 28 elected directors on the board, including mayors from Smithers, Telkwa, New Hazelton, Hazelton, plus regional district directors from Bulkley-Nechako (Area A-Smithers rural) and Kitimat-Stikine (Area B-Hazeltons rural, Kispiox, Witset through Cedarvale).

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