HARTFORD, CT (AP) The state House of Representatives on April 28 approved legislation that would impose tighter oversight and financial controls on University of Connecticut (UConn) construction projects, with some lawmakers chastising the school for the program’s cost overruns, safety code violations and mismanagement.
The House passed the bill on a 145-zero vote. It now awaits action in the Senate.
Many lawmakers acknowledged that the $2.3-billion renovation and construction program has been a resounding success in many ways. Both the school’s national stature and enrollment have skyrocketed.
But some expressed disappointment with university officials, accusing them of squandering taxpayers’ money and putting students at risk.
“When we need fire people in our university system where our children, young adults, sleep at night, that is wrong. That is wrong,” said Rep. Stephen Dargan, D-West Haven, referring to the firefighters that were assigned to monitor dormitories that did not meet fire codes. “It sends a bad message to the people of our state.”
Rep. Steven Mikutel, D-Griswold, said lawmakers trusted UConn to oversee the building initiatives responsibly. The legislature granted the university unprecedented authority to choose all contractors and manage projects with no outside oversight to avoid delays.
“Things went very well for UConn. So well, that they adopted a theme for UConn 2000 — on time and under budget,” Mikutel said. “We know why things went so well, because UConn wasn’t letting little things like safety and fire codes get in their way.”
UConn 2000 is the name for the first phase of construction, while the second phase is called 21st Century UConn.
Some House members also faulted themselves for voting to give UConn such unprecedented freedom to fast-track the construction.
“We made numerous mistakes on UConn 2000 and I made the mistake of voting for it,” Dargan said.
The bill would require independent audits for major construction projects at UConn. Auditors in the future must have full access to any documents they need. A new construction management committee would review and approve all building policies, and a new office with paid staff would be responsible for reviewing construction performance.
Also, all projects would have to be inspected and inventoried. The university would have to identify any work needed to correct code violations, determine how much money that work will cost and identify how it will be paid.
There are some estimates that it will cost $100 million to correct the code problems.
The massive project included new dormitories, dining halls, science buildings, and academic facilities at UConn’s main campus in Storrs, as well as major improvements at UConn’s five regional campuses across the state. Over the past decade, lawmakers have earmarked money through UConn 2000 and 21st Century UConn.
Many of the recommendations in April 28’s bill stemmed from a commission created by Gov. M. Jodi Rell, which spent months poring over the projects. While the group did not detect any fraud associated with management of the construction, it faulted the school for ignoring key outside audits and lacking standardized procedures and policies.
The school has since made numerous changes to improve construction oversight and accountability. There are approximately $1 billion more in projects yet to be completed — making April 28’s bill that much more important to legislators.
“Our confidence and our trust has been shaken by the mistakes that have been made in the implementation and construction under UConn 2000,” said state Rep. Roberta Willis, D-Salisbury, co-chairwoman of the legislature’s Higher Education Committee. “This will go a long way to ensure that resources are spent more efficiently and effectively and the problems will not repeat themselves.”