A political debate is stirring in Pictou East over what a wheeled aggregate screener means for the paving business.
The Department Transportation and Infrastructure Renewal is acquiring by tender the screener, used to move, distribute and sort aggregate such as sand, gravel or asphalt.
In a press release, the Progressive Conservative candidate for Pictou East, Tim Houston, said he has information the screeners will be used to re-screen stockpiles of reclaimed asphalt pavement.
“If that is the case, why wouldn’t the department just issue a tender for private companies to carry out the screening?” he said.
Houston believes there are at least three or four companies in the Pictou County area that have idle screeners capable of doing the job.
Pictou East MLA Clarrie MacKinnon said Houston is mistaken.
“Mr. Houston should’ve got his facts straight before making statements like that,” MacKinnon said. “His release comes just short of fearmongering.”
He says that the wheeled aggregate screener has been earmarked for western Nova Scotia, not Pictou County, and will not be used in road paving.
“This aggregate screener poses no threat to paving businesses in Pictou County or anywhere else for that matter.”
According to MacKinnon the screener would be used for road maintenance such as providing grading for guardrails along the road, filling potholes and screening sand on icy roads.
“This equipment will not be used for the large scale, highway paving projects.”
Houston, however, believes the government is missing the point and cherry picking the jobs it wants and tendering the rest.
“As a result the playing field is not level. When government competes against small business it impedes growth and threatens jobs. The fears that exist among small business owners, who feel that they have no voice in government, are justified,” he said.
“It’s an MLA’s role to be the complete voice of his or her constituency.”
Though Grant Feltmate, executive director of the Nova Scotia Road Builders Association, concedes that the purchase of this particular screener may not affect Pictou County’s businesses, the purchase itself is concerning.
“Looking at the big picture, we see the government getting more involved in road building activities,” said Feltmate.
He calls it ‘scope-creep,’ essentially that the government is taking on more projects rather than contracting out the work to the private sector, which he feels is better to handle the jobs.
“We’re looking at it from the taxpayers’ point of view and, quite frankly, we have tons of capacity in the private sector to repair and pave roads more effectively and efficiently.”
He said that when local businesses don’t get these government contracts from paving to brush cutting, it’s a huge hit.
Jeff Weeks of S.W. Weeks Construction, Ltd. in New Glasgow has successfully bid and plans to bid on highway paving projects this summer. He is equally concerned about the government stretching their legs in the paving business.
“Every bit of work they take in-house is work they take away from the private business,” said Weeks.
“This screener may be for use on the South Shore, but what about next year? What’s their next step? There’s a lot unknown but the one thing we do know is that we business can do it a lot cheaper than the government.”
The tender for the wheeled aggregate screener opened on Jan. 19 and closed on Feb. 5.