The $40000 question

At a press conference on October 28 Tom Sampson deputy chief of the Calgary Emergency Management Agency let out a whopper: Occupy Calgary protesters in Olympic Plaza have caused $40000 worth of damage to the park since they took up residence two weeks ago.

The figure was quickly parroted by the local media instantly sent out via Twitter and then followed up by news reports. But where exactly did that figure come from? No one seemed to know.

According to Cara Katterhagen speaking on behalf of CEMA (Sampson was in a course all day and unavailable for comment) the figure is a "guesstimate" from the parks department. Actual figures won’t be known until the city can access the site and determine the state of the park.

According the Katterhagen "there are some things we know are going to be damaged for instance the grass is dead the tents have killed the grass we have to replace that sod. So we know there’s going to be a cost there."

The other cost is repairing freshly painted polls. "If you’ve been down to Olympic Plaza you’ve seen posters and banners and that sort of thing hanging from all surfaces. A lot of those surfaces were painted this year. And the tape is peeling the paint off."

The other cost comes from a heater in the washrooms that was allegedly kicked in.

CEMA is relying on information passed on from the parks department. When asked if there was someone from parks that would be able to offer a more in-depth rundown of the damage Katterhagen said "quite honestly I don’t think we have more in-depth information at this point." Both she and Sampson were in the same meeting when the information was passed down.

On October 28 at about 2 p.m. Olympic Plaza was relatively quiet. Protesters sat out front of their tents or grabbed a bite to eat at the communal eating area. All of them were baffled by the damage claims. There were no posters taped to any poles (there was red tape wrapped around one pole in the plaza but no one knew if that had been there prior to the occupation) and the grass around and under the tents appeared in good shape (though I’m not a landscaper by any stretch of the imagination). The most damaged grass in the park was well away from the tents. Although I didn’t gain access to the women’s washroon there appeared to be no damage to the heaters in the men’s room unles you count some slightly bent vents.

There simply did not appear to be any damage to the area around the campers. It is also impossible to differentiate between regular wear and tear and anything that might have occured due to the occupation.

Occupy Calgary participants questioned how they could be held accountable for damage done to a public park open to any and all. They also questioned the motives of CEMA and the city who are they say are actively trying to evict them from the plaza.

In addition despite claims that the tents have not moved for two weeks the protesters say they were moved recently to accomodate parks crews who were cleaning up the plaza.

The city does not keep records on the cost of events in the plaza or in other city parks so a comparison with other damage claims is impossible. "Basically that’s taken into account in the permitting process" says Katterhagen. "So if there’s an event for instance that requires additional resources — if they need power if they need running water those sorts of things — those costs are taken into account in the permitting process and that’s done ahead of time."

If there are additional costs the responsibility for paying that falls to the event organizer either through direct payment or through event insurance.

This means there is no direct comparison between the damage done to the plaza at another event say Sled Island or Fiestaval and what has allegedly occured during Occupy Calgary.

Katterhagen says the main difference between an organized event and the Occupy Calgary camp is that mitigating factors are put in place for anticipated damage and the events are usually of a shorter duration.

Although the grass appears to be damaged in other areas of the park where there are no tents (see pictures) if there was damage to the grass at least one local landscapere believes the costs could be high.

"It would be hard to determine without seeing the site but typically sod repairs could be anywhere from $5000 to $15000 per square foot depending on the access and the use of machines" says Aaron Lauritsen of GLI Landscaping.

"I would suggest and I’m no fan of city hall to be honest with you but I would suggest that it might even be higher than $40000 to do that work."

Lingering questions remain: why did the city rush out a number without any information to back it up? Should there a cost to democractic protest? Why did the media not question the damage claim? And can the city back up its claims with proof that damage was done by the protesters as opposed to general wear and tear?