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NYS Comptroller

THOMAS P. DiNAPOLI

Taxpayers' Guide to State and Local Audits

State Education Department
Facilities Planning Bureau Project Review


Issued: January 4, 2019
Link to full audit report 2018-S-2

Purpose
To determine if the State Education Department’s (Department) Facilities Planning Bureau (Bureau) completes its review of projects in a timely manner and, if not, what the impacts on school districts are. We also sought to determine whether districts are commencing project construction prior to obtaining final project approval. The audit covered the period July 1, 2013 to October 18, 2018.

Background
The Department is responsible for the administration and enforcement of the New York State Uniform Fire Prevention and Building Code (Code) in relation to district construction projects. The Code applies to every facility owned or operated by districts or Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) (collectively referred to in this report as Districts). The Department enforces the Code by reviewing and approving plans and specifications for all capital construction projects involving these facilities and issuing building permits. Per the State Education Law, Districts must obtain final approval for a project before commencing construction. Between July 2013 and January 2018, Districts submitted 8,862 capital projects, 6,905 of which were estimated to cost almost $8.7 billion. The remaining 1,957 projects did not have associated estimated costs for a variety of reasons (e.g., project was canceled or did not require an estimated cost). The average cost for the 6,905 projects was over $1.2 million.

State aid is available for certain projects with construction costs of $10,000 or more (excluding incidental costs). State building aid provided to Districts has increased steadily. In school year 2013-14, State building aid payments totaled about $2.76 billion. By 2017-18, building aid had increased by 7.9 percent, to approximately $2.98 billion. Districts that begin capital construction projects prior to receiving final approval risk losing State aid.

Key Findings

  • We found that the Bureau does not perform project plan reviews timely, and lacks guidelines that define a reasonable time period to review a project. As of August 2018, the Bureau estimated a lag time to begin its architectural and engineering reviews as 2-4 weeks and 38-40 weeks, respectively. While the Bureau has taken some proactive steps to address this issue, staff vacancies and new responsibilities continue to contribute to the project review backlog. According to District officials, these delays have impacted their ability to complete projects in a reasonable and timely fashion and caused them to reduce the scope of their projects or increase expected costs (due to inflation and fluctuations in the price of building materials during the delay).
  • The Bureau does not monitor project construction, including whether Districts begin construction before the final approval and any on-site confirmation of completed projects.
  • The systems the Bureau uses to track project information are antiquated and are not designed to allow staff to perform data analyses of projects, limiting the Bureau’s ability to monitor and improve its oversight performance.

Key Recommendations

  • Take steps to develop clear criteria and goals for project review timeliness.
  • Develop a risk-based approach for conducting site visits of projects under construction to gain reasonable assurance that consultants and contractors are not beginning construction before receiving final project approval and that projects are being constructed in accordance with approved plans and specifications.
  • Take steps to improve the information technology systems used to track and monitor capital construction projects. At a minimum, this should include the development of a reliable webbased portal and the ability to generate management reports on relevant capital construction project information for all Districts.

State Government Accountability Contact Information:
Audit Director: Stephen Goss
Phone: (518) 474-3271; Email: StateGovernmentAccountability@osc.state.ny.us
Address: Office of the State Comptroller; Division of State Government Accountability; 110 State Street, 11th Floor; Albany, NY 12236