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Billions to Spend: Part 1

Waste throws wrench into Los Angeles community colleges' massive project

Poor planning, frivolous spending and shoddy work dog the sprawling system's bond-financed construction program.

February 27, 2011|By Michael Finnegan and Gale Holland, Los Angeles Times
  • Larry Eisenberg, head of the construction program, right, at a meeting. In an April 2009 e-mail, he told his construction chief that quality control was "horrible," adding: "We are opening buildings that do not work at the most fundamental level."
Larry Eisenberg, head of the construction program, right, at a meeting.… (Christina House / For The…)

The effects of decades of neglect were all too visible at the nine far-flung campuses. Roofs leaked. Furniture was decrepit. Seismic protections were outdated.

In 2001, leaders of the Los Angeles Community College District decided to take action. With support from construction companies and labor unions, they persuaded voters to pass a series of bond measures over the next seven years that raised $5.7 billion to rebuild every campus.

Billions to Spend: Complete Coverage

The money would ease classroom crowding. It would make college buildings safer. New technology would enhance learning. And financial oversight would be stringent.

That is what was promised to Los Angeles voters.

The reality? Tens of millions of dollars have gone to waste because of poor planning, frivolous spending and shoddy workmanship, a Times investigation found.

Bond money has paid for valuable improvements: new science buildings, libraries, stadiums and computer centers. But costly blunders by college officials, contractors and the district's elected Board of Trustees have denied the system's 142,000 students the full potential of one of California's largest public works programs.

This picture emerges from scores of interviews and a review of thousands of pages of district financial records, internal e-mails and other documents.

At East Los Angeles College, construction of a grand entry plaza with a clock tower degenerated into a comedy of errors. Heating and cooling units were installed upside down, inspectors found. Concrete steps were uneven. Cracked and wet lumber had to be torn out. A ramp for the disabled was too steep for wheelchairs, and the landmark clock tower listed to one side.

Fixing the problems helped drive construction costs from $28 million to $43 million.

A new health and science center at Valley College was marred by defective plumbing, cracked floors, leaky windows and loosely attached ceiling panels that threatened to crash down in an earthquake.

The district paid a contractor $48 million to build the complex, but had to hire others to correct the problems and finish the project — for an additional $3.5 million.

At least those buildings were finished, eventually. At West Los Angeles College, officials spent $39 million to design and begin construction of four major buildings, only to discover that they didn't have the money to complete them.

Just as crews were starting work last summer, the projects, including a $92-million athletics center, were abandoned.

"This is astounding," said David Beaulieu, president of the District Academic Senate. "How could this have happened?"

At Valley College, workers renovated a theater complex, installing new seats, lighting and sound equipment in time for a 2009 student production of "Alice in Wonderland." But even before the $3.4-million job was done, officials decided to build a new theater complex. The renovated one is slated for demolition.

"I think it's obscene, given what's going on in this economy," said Pete Parkin, former chairman of the theater department. "It's mind-boggling."

At L.A. City College, architects were hired to design a five-story fitness center with a glassed-in dance studio on the top floor. Before construction began, the college president decided to move the fitness center to the other side of campus. There, it would need to be short and wide, not tall and narrow.

The $1.8-million design was suddenly worthless. The district paid architects $1.9 million to draft a new one.

The waste has not been limited to construction. Bond money that was supposed to pay for new buildings has gone to public relations, travel and promotional videos.

The videos alone cost more than $350,000 and include aerial footage shot from chartered helicopters. "Upbeat music and graphic effects" were added at the request of district officials, who wanted the productions to be "more lively and entertaining," a video producer wrote in an internal e-mail.

Some of the videos illustrated the progress of the program. But one was a biography of Larry Eisenberg, the district official in charge of the program; it included childhood photos of Eisenberg set to a soundtrack of piano music by French composer Erik Satie.

The district paid still photographers up to $175 an hour to take pictures of trustees at construction award banquets.

It hired an expert in feng shui, for $250 an hour, to give advice on harmonizing new buildings with their surroundings.

To oversee wind energy projects, officials hired a public relations specialist with almost no experience in renewable power, at an annual salary of $135,000.

In an e-mail to a colleague, Tony Fairclough, a consulting engineer on the district's energy projects, shared his dismay over the hiring. He wondered why managers of the construction program would "employ people and then dump them in a position for which they have no qualifications."

"It makes me angry," he wrote, "that we waste money like this."

An unwieldy system

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