07/21/2015 04:32 EDT | Updated 07/21/2016 05:59 EDT

Leo Housakos: Senate Not Overspending In Hunt For Office Space

OTTAWA - The Senate's Speaker is firing back at reports that depict the upper chamber as a wild spender in the hunt for office space and work on a temporary home.

Leo Housakos says in an open letter that the Senate hasn't turned down any options for temporary accommodations because it is still waiting for Public Works to come up with revamped proposals for relocating senators off Parliament Hill in three years time.

The Senate and Public Works have battled over relocating 27 senators, their staff and their offices as the department tries to get a grip on an increasing budget to find the Senate a temporary home once the Centre Block closes in 2018 for a decade of badly needed renovations.

A January briefing note to Public Works Minister Diane Finley suggested that extending the search for office space south by one further city block away from Parliament Hill would save the government $24.5 million over 13 years and still be within walking distance of the temporary Senate chamber just off Parliament Hill.

The cost and walking distance made the Senate the butt of NDP jokes in the wake of a critical report from the auditor general that found a culture of entitlement in some corners of the Senate.

"The Senate has never refused an option on office space based on walking distance for senators," Housakos writes in an open letter posted to the Senate's website Tuesday.

"The simple fact is the Senate has not declined any option because we are still awaiting options to be presented to us by Public Works Canada."

He says that any decisions the Senate makes will try to minimize the effects on the public purse.

"The Senate is not only responsible but obligated to ensure that we are careful with your hard earned dollars. And that is exactly what we will continue to do. On this you have my word," Housakos writes.

In all, building a temporary home for the Senate chamber in Ottawa's historic train station steps from Parliament Hill, and leasing temporary office space combined is supposed to cost $269 million.

The department wants to use the potential savings of $24.5 million gained from spreading senators around downtown to help cover the $29 million in cost overruns on renovations to the train station, now the government conference centre, which was supposed to cost $190 million.

A Public Works spokeswoman says officials found serious structural issues with the 100-year-old conference centre shortly after work began. Annie Trepanier says workers now have to remove and reinforce floor slabs, beams and columns throughout the building to meet modern building codes.

As well, the heritage cast iron windows throughout the building were so corroded that they required "significant repair," Trepanier says, and there are structural concerns about the coffered plaster ceilings in the grand hall.

Housakos says Public Works officials first proposed a much costlier option of building an enclosed, temporary Senate chamber in the courtyard of the East Block on Parliament Hill, similar to the one being constructed in the West Block for the House of Commons, that would have cost "hundreds of millions of dollars to taxpayers."

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