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Los Angeles colleges resume $6-billion campus building projects

The L.A. Community College District had imposed a moratorium to examine whether campuses had sufficient funding to support a planned 60% increase in new facilities, particularly in light of severe state cuts.

August 26, 2012|By Carla Rivera, Los Angeles Times
  • California Controller John Chiang found that the district failed to provide adequate oversight in its spending.
California Controller John Chiang found that the district failed to provide… (Paul Kitagaki Jr. / Sacramento…)

Spending on most new construction projects in the Los Angeles Community College District's $6-billion campus building project has resumed, virtually ending a moratorium that had been the centerpiece of efforts to reform poor planning, questionable spending and other flaws uncovered in the program.

The moratorium was initially imposed last October to examine whether campuses had sufficient funding to maintain and operate 3 million square feet of new facilities — a 60% increase — particularly in light of severe state funding cuts.

It followed an audit last August by state Controller John Chiang, which found that the district failed to provide adequate oversight in its spending and recommended that it adopt procedures to account for operating costs of new construction.

By December, more than 100 projects totaling $1.9 billion were halted.

But an update released last week revealed that only about $285 million in projects remained suspended. Officials said a number of measures, including stronger spending controls, creation of a $160-million reserve fund to address unforeseen costs and an annual set-aside of general funds for deferred maintenance and repairs, had resulted in work resuming more quickly than anticipated.

The Times last year uncovered a litany of problems in the building program. A six-part series detailed mismanagement, cost overruns, delays and shoddy workmanship during an ambitious campaign to modernize the district's nine aging campuses using bond money approved by voters in 2001, 2003 and 2008. About half of the construction funds have been spent so far.

"The moratorium allowed colleges to go back and look at their master plans and determine where their expenditures were best used and whether they needed all of the square footage they had originally programmed," said James D. O'Reilly, the district's executive director for facilities planning and development, who was appointed in April. "People were much more frugal with their remaining funds. There was a tremendous amount of building initially; and now that there are finite sums left, they are taking a real hard look at prioritizing projects."

The Los Angeles college district has been hard hit by budget cuts, losing nearly $100 million in state support since 2009 and cutting 1,500 class sections. About 15,000 fewer students have been served, forcing campuses to reassess space needs. An analysis found that the price of materials and other construction costs had not inflated during the delay, O'Reilly said.

"We met our goals in terms of ensuring that the relationship of the bond program to enrollment, to costs and to space utilization was much greater than if we hadn't slowed it down," said Chancellor Daniel LaVista.

Major projects still awaiting the go-ahead include the $80-million Construction Trades Center at Los Angeles Trade-Tech, the $75-million Student Success and Retention Center at East Los Angeles College and the $80-million Media and Performing Arts Center at Los Angeles Valley College. All three projects are awaiting approval by the state architect's office, with work expected to begin by year's end, O'Reilly said.

Several other projects costing about $490 million are also on hold at the request of colleges until they reevaluate the scope of the work and resolve budget issues.

Jacob Roper, a spokesman for Chiang's office, said Friday the controller is pleased that the district implemented audit recommendations and that the office may follow up to measure the system's progress.

Donald J. Gauthier, president of the district's academic senate, had supported the moratorium and said it had resulted in a valuable reassessment of many projects. But for many faculty, the pace of work has dragged on too long, he said.

"For most of us, a moratorium of four or five months would have been OK, so I wish they had done this a little faster," Gauthier said. "People get promised buildings and offices and have seen years go by without shovel being put to ground. We hope this last round will be released soon."

carla.rivera@latimes.com

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