Gotham Gazette Fri, 14 Aug 2020 09:08:12 +0000 Joomla! - Open Source Content Management en-gb (Webmaster) A More Transparent City, with A Page for Every Capital Project capital project dbalkin

Construction in Corona Plaza (photo via DOT)

Few things impact the lives of New Yorkers more than the city’s “capital projects.” These projects create, maintain, and improve the infrastructure New Yorkers use every day, including: streets, bridges, tunnels, sewers, parks, and so much more. In 2018, the capital budget will be $16.2 billion, approximately 17% the size of the city’s $85.2 billion “expense budget.” What are these projects? How can you find out about them? It’s not easy, but it should be.

The Capital Budgeting process is a complex endeavour. The City maintains a 10 Year Capital Strategy that it updates every two years, and an Annual Capital Budget that is passed every year by the City Council, and a Capital Commitment Plan that is prepared by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) three times a year, which outlines precisely how and when funds are being allocated to agencies on a project by project basis. The Commitment Plan is the most interesting because it’s the closest to the reality of how the city is planning to spend our money. It comes in fourvolumes” of PDFs containing 2,162 pages of table after table of information describing nearly 10,000 different projects. Printing this out results in a stack of paper about one foot tall.

In 2017, why isn’t all this information in an easy-to-use spreadsheet or database? The only reasonable answer is that the city doesn’t want the public to scrutinize this information too deeply.

Fortunately, recent advances in technology have made it much easier to turn PDFs into spreadsheets, and spreadsheets into web applications. And that’s what I’ve done at, where you can now find a web page for every single capital project, organized by agency and sortable by project’s cost. Of course, our ability to display useful information about projects is limited by the information in the capital budget reports - but there’s more than enough information to pique any budget conscious New Yorker’s interest.

Here’s an example: Project HBMA23216 from the DOT is a $312 million construction project for the “Promenade over FDR E81st - 90th St Bin 2232167.” That’s a lot of money for a promenade. By Googling the project’s name, description, and various internal codes (FMS Number, Budgetline and Commitment Codes) we can find a lot more information, like the RFP Notice, proposed architectural plans, and more.

As you browse the budget, sorting the most expensive projects by agency, more questions arise: Why does the City’s 311 system need a “Re-Architecture” that costs over $20 million this year? Why isn’t the press reporting the over $120 million in renovations planned for the Brooklyn Detention Center (search BKDC)? Why does the “Vision Zero Street Reconstuction” [sic] go from $2 million in 2018 to $100 million per year in 2021-2023?

I’m sure good answers exist for these and other, more probing, questions. These projects are, after all, funded by us taxpayers. Making this information more accessible would not only create more opportunities for civic engagement, it would also allow the public, journalists, academics, and others to serve as watchdogs, which might result in millions of dollars of identifiable cost savings.

A quick trip to the New York City Charter reveals that the City is required by law to document its capital projects in a very specific way. Presumably the City follows its Charter, which means this information exists, so shouldn’t the city share more of it? Cost shouldn’t be the reason we don’t have access to this information. If the City spent just 1/100th of 1% of the capital budget on public documentation, they could easily fund an exceptional website with a team of data organizers and content publishers who could keep it up-to-date.

What would that website look like? It would certainly have a lot more information than what the city currently publishes in its PDFs and on their “Capital Project Dashboard,” which offers very little additional information about the 189 “active projects over $25 millions.”

Imagine if the City maintained a web page for every capital project that contained all related public information: project status, project scope summaries, location on a map, lists of hired contractors and their fees, and an activity log so we, the people, could watch as projects move through their various stages. Now that’s the types of transparency we should expect from our city government!

Who has the power to make this information public? Certainly the Mayor's Office, but it's easy to see why it doesn't. The Mayor is responsible for directing the people and agencies leading  these projects, so creating more avenues for additional scrutiny, which could easily lead to bad press, is hardly a priority. Fortunately, New York City’s Public Advocate, which is an entirely independent office, has some statutory jurisdiction within the Capital Budget process and could force the city to better document the capital budget.

Section 216 of the New York City Charter states, “Upon the adoption of any such amendment by the council, it shall be certified by the mayor, the public advocate and the city clerk, and the capital budget shall be amended accordingly.” While I’m not a lawyer, it sounds like the Public Advocate could threaten to stop certifying amendments to the budget until the city releases a database of all capital projects with additional information to help New Yorkers better understand how their tax dollars are being spent.

That’s precisely what the Public Advocate should do, and as a candidate running for that position, I commit to making that demand when elected. It’s up to you, the public and the media, to ask other Public Advocate candidates how they’d use their oversight power over the Capital Budget. Will they also pledge to demand "A Page for Every Project"?

Until the city offers a page for every capital project, I’ll will keep updating so New Yorkers can learn more about what the city does with our money. It’s a tough job but somebody’s gotta do it.

combo capital project

(image of the city's capital commitment plan vs. our website) 

Devin Balkind is a candidate for New York City Public Advocate. He is also the President of the Sahana Software Foundation, a nonprofit organization that produces the world’s most popular open source software platform for disaster management. On Twitter @DevinBalkind.

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A More Transparent City, with A Page for Every Capital Project Wed, 01 Nov 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Capital Project Delays are Stifling Growth and Hurting Communities de Blasio ribbon cutting park

Mayor de Blasio, Parks Commissioner Silver & others (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

If you’ve ever wondered about the conversations that take place in the well-appointed inner sanctum of the City Council’s member lounge, you may be deeply disappointed to find the truth. Seldom are the chats like those you’d see on House of Cards; nor is the room even smoke-filled these days. We’ve banned that. The most common thing you’re likely to overhear is this: “Why does it take a decade to build a dang playground in my district?”

As the city grows, New York’s ability to effectively and efficiently deliver public capital projects is diminishing. This is no secret. Efforts to improve the system are not bearing fruit; all the while excuses for the delays, cost overruns, and errors become more commonplace.

New York City needs a drastic overhaul of the management of its capital program. The new approach should include the formation of a new construction authority, the ability to award design-build contracts, the appointment of a construction czar with a proven track record, the re-calibration of contracts to reflect a shorter timeline, and the reexamination of the existing and often duplicative approval processes through multiple agencies.

Speak to any City Council member. They can point to examples within their district that highlight the problem. In mine, on Staten Island, we’ve been waiting since 2011 for a glorified gazebo at Conference House Park, and since 2009 for a plaza and pathways at Crescent Beach. At Bloomingdale Park, our Borough President waited so long for a simple stretch of sidewalk delayed by the Parks Department’s own tree regulations that he re-allocated the money to the State Department of Transportation, which is performing the work in a quarter of the time at half the cost.

The Parks Department may be first up in the Council’s crosshairs as it was the subject of an April Parks Committee grilling on this topic, and there has already been the rumblings of legislation to form a Parks Capital Authority. Yet, the agency is far from alone.

The Department of Design and Construction, which was originally launched in 1996 to be the solution to these types of problems, is now part of it. I half joke and half cringe when reminding my constituents that both a DDC-managed little league field and the replacement of the Goethals Bridge were approved and funded around the same time, but there will be cars driving to Jersey before any fly balls are shagged in Tottenville.

Mayor de Blasio did not cause this current problem, but since it now falls in his lap, he should look to form an independent authority as one way to combat its growth. I have heard him publicly and privately praise the work done by the School Construction Authority and the efficiency at which it operates. Respectfully, Mr. Mayor, please take this as a not-so subtle hint, as I trust it may be something you’ve already pondered.

The difference in cost and pace between the SCA and mayoral agencies is enough to drive many City Council members to scrap funding for those like Parks in favor of the SCA. For example, I’ve received rough estimates for a new playground at over $1 million and three years on the Parks side of a jointly-operated schoolyard, while a similar project on the other side of the invisible line controlled by SCA is half the cost and time. As a result, we’re getting several new SCA playgrounds this year on Staten Island.

However, to blame the agencies without acknowledging that some of the delays stem from the design and procurement rules they must follow would be disingenuous. Appointing a Capital Construction “Czar” would allow an overarching review of these policies, primarily to see if they are causing unnecessary delays without meeting their own goals.

A good place to start would be where agencies like the Parks Department often place the blame themselves: right at the doorstep of the Public Design Commission. In the age of data-driven results, it is unclear what the PDC points to as a quantifiable success. To many in city government, it is simply a mysterious all-delaying entity that occupies secluded office space in the rafters of City Hall’s cupola, like a project-killing Quasimodo. All Council members have at least one anecdote about construction being delayed by the PDC. But much like the Hunchback, there’s a belief that it, too, may be a fictitious tale, and one which the Parks Department conveniently uses to account for any postponement.

A new authority led by a czar could reevaluate the usefulness of obstructionist procedural check-offs like the PDC and seek innovative ways to streamline the flow of capital projects. We need a top to bottom review of internal timetables we set, and the contract deadlines we impose. Much of this has already been attempted in earnest by Parks Commissioner Mitchell Silver. He should be commended, as there does seem to be a new focus by the agency on capital efficiency. Still, many of the factors are outside of his agency’s control and thus his reach extends only so far.

This new authority could also look at other municipalities for innovative ideas. Both Chicago and Los Angeles have significant capital programs, which go through similar procedural hurdles during design and contract procurement. However, both cities also split work between separate jurisdictions at the county and city level. Perhaps empowering borough presidents to shepherd and procure capital programs at our own county level could work in our favor.

Additionally, both cities have more liberal design-build laws. This is a policy that is already supported by Mayor de Blasio, who has tried to lobby the state to grant the city this power. For a Governor who is eager to criticize city government, it is unclear why Andrew Cuomo supports a potentially productive expansion of design-build elsewhere in the state, but not New York City.

These are just two ways New York could employ new ideas from elsewhere; but, if we do begin comparing our city to others, we may not be entirely happy with the blunt results. Skim the budget documents of Chicago, Cook County, Los Angeles, and Los Angeles County, and you’ll notice that all of their combined capital dollars are a fraction of what New York City plans to use, especially as our new ten-year capital plan now tops $95 billion.

The fact that New York spends a lot of money is nothing new. Our city budget is roughly the size of Poland’s budget, and the NYPD alone spends more than Mongolia. But when it comes to servicing our capital debt, New Yorkers have a right to raise new questions.

Debt service obligations are predicted to rise by 33% to $8.4 billion by 2021, and the percentage of tax revenue budgeted for it will trickle up to almost 15% in the same period.

Much of this growth is due to expanding interest payments on our ambitious capital program, which with a typical municipal general obligation bond we may be paying interest on for 20 years. It’s easy to accept this cost for a bridge when it’s constructed and the commuters are using it. It’s much harder for the public to digest the fact that we are paying interest on the bonds used to finance a playground or building while it’s delayed by our own morass.

The new statistic the administration should focus on and include in future capital plan slideshows is the amount of debt we are paying on projects that only exist as piles of paper aging on bureaucrats’ desks. Hopefully, by tracking that we can put even more pressure on City Hall to reform the way capital projects are worked through the system.

Joseph Borelli is a New York City Council member for the 51st District on Staten Island, a former state legislator, an adjunct professor at CUNY College of Staten Island, and a Lindsay Fellow at the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance. On Twitter @JoeBorelliNYC. (The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of CUNY ISLG or any other affiliated entity.)

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Capital Project Delays are Stifling Growth and Hurting Communities Wed, 03 May 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Bill Aims to Increase Agency Accountability on Capital Projects council member cohen bill de blasio

City Council Member Andrew Cohen (photo: William Alatriste/City Council)

New York City government capital projects -- the building of a school or park, or the reconstruction of a bridge, for example -- are notorious for their delays and tendency to exceed initial budget projections. In an attempt to address these long-standing issues, City Council Member Andrew Cohen of the Bronx is introducing a bill that will require city government agencies to inform communities and their elected officials about expected delays and cost overruns to capital projects in their districts.

No matter the project or the city agency, communities and their elected representatives are frequently left in the dark as to when and at what cost promised improvements will be complete. Frequently, the agencies involved are the Parks Department, Department of Transportation, Department of Design & Construction, and Department of Housing Preservation & Development.

Cohen’s bill, which he’ll introduce at the City Council on Wednesday, will require that agencies send electronic notice to the relevant City Council member, borough president, and community board within 30 days of learning of “any projected or actual delay of sixty days or more,” as well as “any projected or actual change of ten percent or more of the total estimated cost of the capital project.” The bill also mandates that the notice must also include an explanation of the reason for the delay or cost increase.

Speaking with Gotham Gazette, Council Member Cohen said that the impetus for the bill “was really just about improving accountability, telling these agencies that when you make a commitment to our communities, you have to deliver on it, and if you don’t, there will be consequences.”

According to data provided to Gotham Gazette by the Citizens Budget Commission (CBC), a nonpartisan budget watchdog, as of November 2016, 86 of the 191 city capital projects with budgets of over $25 million are delayed by at least 12 months. Of those 86, 33 have been delayed by more than 24 months, with the median delay for such projects totaling 126 days.

In regards to budgetary concerns, CBC also reported that, of the 191 projects, 81 have current forecasted budgets greater than 120 percent of their original budget. Of those, 18 are projected to double their original baseline projection, leaving the median change in overall budget at an increase of $6.5 million. The total net change in current forecasted budgets for the 191 projects is $5.6 billion above the original forecasted budgets for all projects ($19.4 billion), an aggregate increase of 29 percent.

Jamison Hague, the Director of Infrastructure Studies at CBC, was quick to note that while a number of projects might exceed their initial budget or schedule, this can often be due to a “change in scope,” which, from an agency perspective, would not constitute an over-budget or behind-schedule project.

Council Member Cohen noted that the difficulties he has faced in his district have often been with the Parks Department, but added that every Council member has their own horror story. “Talk to any member and they will agree,” he said. “Every member is frustrated with this issue.”

by Luke Foley, Gotham Gazette

Bill Aims to Increase Agency Accountability on Capital Projects Tue, 04 Apr 2017 04:00:00 +0000
Overdue DOE Capital Plan To Be Released bdb school visit

De Blasio at a school visit (photo: Demetrius Freeman/Mayor's Office)

Once Mayor Bill de Blasio unveils his preliminary budget for 2017 on Thursday, Jan. 21, the City Council will begin to hold hearings and formulate its response. In conversations with Gotham Gazette, City Council members Julissa Ferreras-Copeland, chair of the finance committee, and Daniel Dromm, education committee chair, said that one of their top priorities during budget season will be addressing school overcrowding through the Department of Education’s capital spending plan. 

Capital spending allows for the expansion and rehabilitation of existing schools and the building of new schools.

Each year, the DOE five-year Capital Plan is meant to be included in the mayor’s executive budget, updated in the November financial plan, and then amended through a public review process for inclusion in the next budget. This review process lends the plan transparency as the DOE and School Construction Authority consult with Community Education Councils, Community Boards, City Council borough delegations, and other elected officials. The plan is again updated and typically released in February for approval by the Panel for Education Policy. The PEP then forwards it to the Mayor and City Council.

In the last two years, the process has been significantly off schedule. Last year, the DOE Capital Plan Amendment was delayed till May 2015 to align it with the city’s 10-year capital plan. The amendment proposed a $13.5 billion five-year DOE Capital Plan for 2015-2019, up from $12 billion the previous year. As a result of the delay, there was no update in November.

The amendment will now be introduced along with the preliminary budget on Thursday, OMB spokesperson Amy Spitalnick confirmed.

“It’s disappointing that this is the second year that (the capital plan) hasn’t come out on time,” said Council Member Dromm. “I’m hoping that it will be out shortly. We need time to look at it and examine it.”

The capital plan is especially important to Dromm, Ferreras-Copeland, and others who represent districts with some of the most overcrowded schools in the city. Schools in Queens, where both Dromm and Ferreras-Copeland reside, are the most overcrowded of any borough.

“It’s overdue, it’s late,” Ferreras-Copeland said of the plan. When the Council does get it, she said she will work closely with Dromm to appeal for an additional $1 billion to address the issue of overcrowding.

The DOE capital plan estimates that adding around 38,000 seats would help alleviate the problem, but critics say that number is too low. A June 2014 report by Class Size Matters, a nonprofit that advocates for smaller class sizes, estimated the shortage of seats at around 100,000 (Dromm believes it’s more likely between 50,000 and 75,000).

“If you look at all the development going on in the city, particularly the mayor’s plan to add 200,000 affordable housing units, then there’s a dire need for additional seats,” Dromm said. He wants most of the new money in the capital plan put towards building new schools rather than refurbishing existing ones. “We need physical seats. We need brick-and-mortar buildings to be built,” he said.

Class Size Matters’ executive director, Leonie Haimson, doubts that the update to the capital plan will be good enough, even if it is better. She called for doubling the number of seats from the last plan and investing $125 million each year from the city coffers, which would be matched by state funds. She was also critical of the DOE’s slow movement on the plan, which is now already in its second year and unapproved.

“We should have more time, not less time to analyze the plan considering the failures of the DOE in the past,” she said. “There needs to be more public process and more genuine interest on the part of the DOE to listen to people.”

Besides a greater investment in the capital plan, Class Size Matters also advocates for an independent commission to improve planning and efficiency in siting new schools.

“The mayor’s made a big push towards increasing pre-K and housing but paid very little attention to where those kids are going to go to school,” Haimson said. “I don’t think you can create good neighborhoods without schools. We’re the richest city in the richest country in the world and we have severe school overcrowding and waiting lists for kindergarten.”

[Related: What To Watch For As City Budget Season Begins]

by Samar Khurshid, Gotham Gazette.
@samarkhurshid     @GothamGazette

Overdue DOE Capital Plan To Be Released Wed, 20 Jan 2016 03:02:04 +0000