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Rough Guess: $5.4B Needed to Restart NJ School Construction

Fri June 09, 2006 - Northeast Edition
Tom Hester Jr.

TRENTON, NJ (AP) The state would need $5.4 billion to revive 97 school construction projects stalled when the state’s school construction agency ran out of money, the agency’s chief told lawmakers May 25, though he cautioned it was a rough guess.

Scott Weiner, interim head of the New Jersey Schools Construction Corp., (SCC) said the agency needed time to prioritize projects and solidify plans and costs before beginning construction anew.

Weiner said the SCC will make a recommendation to Gov. Jon S. Corzine in August. He emphasized he had little confidence in the $5.4 billion estimate and said inexact estimates helped lead to the agency spending $8.6 billion previously without finishing its job.

“We are trying as hard as we can to avoid that,” Weiner said.

But Sen. Ron Rice and Assemblyman Craig Stanley, co-chairmen of a joint public schools committee, pushed during a special hearing to quickly restart the projects, with Rice especially demanding action.

“I am very adamant about this year,” Rice said.

Rice cast doubts on the SCC’s inability to provide a precise estimate and argued that the summer construction season will be lost and construction costs will increase if projects aren’t quickly revived.

“To say we cannot calculate those dollars, to me it’s not correct,” said Rice, a Newark Democrat who has proposed having the state borrow approximately $3 billion to jump-start the construction program.

Rice demanded the SCC provide reliable cost estimates and other data to the committee within three weeks, but Weiner remained cautious.

“We’re still refining and scrubbing these numbers,” he said, calling the $5.4 billion estimate “rough at best.”

But Rice insisted the administration cannot wait.

“There are many who feel that Gov. Corzine has been helpful in reforming the SCC, but there are also many of us who feel he’s a barrier to the process of getting these schools started this year,” Rice said.

The Corzine administration was unmoved.

“No additional monies should be authorized until we can be certain the funds are spent appropriately and wisely and that they are used for the purposes for which they were intended,” Corzine spokesman Anthony Coley said.

But Stanley, also a Newark Democrat, said already-implemented SCC management and oversight reforms means projects can proceed without such concerns.

“We are stopping progress,” Stanley said.

Of the $8.6 billion provided to the SCC by the state, $6 billion was for schools in the state’s poorest school districts.

But the SCC, created in 2002 under Supreme Court order to provide new schools in the 31 poorest districts, has been plagued by management and oversight problems. Government reports found waste and potential fraud, and 315 school projects were shelved after the SCC spent all its money.

Earlier this year, state officials estimated it would cost at least $12.8 billion to do all 315 projects. Ninety-seven of the 315 had design work suspended, and Weiner said those projects would be the first to move forward if additional money is provided by the Legislature.

Assemblywoman Jennifer Beck, R-Mercer and Monmouth counties, said not everyone supports spending more money. She said she heard from angry residents during a meeting in West Windsor, which is considered among the state’s more wealthier districts.

“There is no stomach in the general public to provide additional funding at this point, both from property tax issues and the waste, fraud and abuse that has gone on,” Beck said.

Weiner and Barry Zubrow, chairman of the SCC’s board of directors, listed various reforms implemented at the SCC in recent months, including plans to rework its governance and how it buys sites, plans projects and awards contracts. Zubrow said none of the reforms would prove a “silver bullet,” but said it should make the SCC more efficient.

“We are seeking to create clear lines of management accountability and board oversight,” Zubrow said.

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