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Op-Ed: State needs to get to work on school construction

Thursday, March 11, 2010

San Francisco Chronicle

by Joe Simitian

“Jobs, jobs, jobs” was the call from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in his State of the State message. No one heckled. Jobs are a bipartisan aspiration.

Turning it into a bipartisan accomplishment has been more elusive. So it is all the more frustrating when the state fumbles an easy opportunity for more employment - when projects have been designed, money is available, contractors are eager to bid, workers are desperate, and yet all sit and wait for a sluggish bureaucracy.

School district officials up and down the state tell me that they have construction work ready to go. But the plans are stalled at the Division of the State Architect which must approve them. Like many state agencies, the architect’s office has required its employees to take three unpaid furlough days a month - even though when plan-checkers stay home, construction workers remain idle.

The measure of the wait is called “bin time.” Bin time is not how long it takes to review the plans; it’s how long a plan sits before someone even picks it up. At the end of January, bin time was 12 weeks. That’s right, three months. [1]

School districts have the money for new buildings and modernization. Voters in 2006 approved $7.3 billion for K-12 schools statewide, and local bonds add millions more. California’s construction industry certainly needs the work. It shrank by more than 100,000 jobs in 2009. That means that school districts are missing a prime opportunity to capture low-cost bids, giving the taxpayers more for their money.

Delays on school projects are particularly disruptive. For work that must be done when students are gone, a three-month delay can turn into a year if the project isn’t approved in time for the coming summer.

Instead of furloughs, state architect’s office employees ought to be working full time, and even overtime. If applications temporarily flood in, the agency should contract out for additional reviewers if it believes adding permanent staff is not cost-effective.

Getting these projects underway is not just a benefit for school districts. When people go to work and contractors buy supplies, the state receives sales and income taxes.

Unfortunately, a backlog at the state architect’s office is nothing new. Last April, the agency told school districts it was reordering priorities. In June, acknowledging bin times of 12 weeks, the agency announced it would hire 25 additional staff and take other measures to catch up.

It sounded good. Progress was made. It didn’t last.

Long term, the state and the nation need to reinvigorate the private sector to strengthen our economy. But in the short term, we need government to prime the pump. Right now, no mission of the state is more critical than job creation.

Few projects can match school construction as a quick way to put carpenters, masons, electricians and plumbers back to work and to boost orders for lumber, concrete, lights and pipes.

Schools are waiting to provide better classrooms, libraries and playgrounds for their students. Workers are anxious for a regular paycheck. The money is waiting in the bank.

Everyone is waiting on a state that says it wants nothing more than jobs, jobs, jobs, yet the bureaucracy seems in no hurry to reach in and grab the ones sitting in the bin.

State Sen. Joe Simitian, D-Palo Alto, is a member of the Senate Education Committee.

[1] The Division of the State Architect recently changed the way it measures bin time. This figure reflects their original calculations.