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Suspicions surround $1.2B school project
Rochester, N.Y. --- It is the most expensive public works project in the history of Rochester and it is also the target of scathing audits, an FBI probe, and political in-fighting.
The Rochester City School Districts facilities modernization project involves at least $1.2 billion in taxpayer funds and it could span two decades before it is all complete. Work began in 2012 on Phase 1, budgeted to cost $325 million, and portions of that phase arent scheduled to be complete until 2015. On Thursday legislation was introduced in the New York State Assembly that would approve $435 million in funds for Phase 2 of this project.
Phase 1 of the project was blasted by auditors for questionable billing practices, filing issues related to documenting minority and female workers and for going over budget. Local authorities also confirm an FBI Investigation is looking at Phase 1 of this project. Phase 1 was supposed to address facilities upgrades and modernization at twelve schools but now only eleven can be completed given the available funds.
Phase 2 is meant to address upgrades at twenty-six schools.
Questions & criticism over Phase 2
"Until we figure out what we did right, what we did wrong, what are the lessons learned that will help us to inform Phase 2 we should not be passing this legislation, said Rochester City School Board member Cynthia Elliott who first saw the legislation when 13WHAM News brought it to her. I'm seeing it for the first time... I'm very suspicious, very suspicious.
Elliott is specifically suspicious of Assembly Majority Leader Joseph Morelle (D, Irondequoit) and co-sponsor Harry Bronson (D, Rochester) who are carrying the bill in that house.
"It leaves me to be suspicious about what really is going on? What is the real reason they want to push this thing when in fact we know the FBI is doing an investigation it seems to me to be irresponsible, said Elliott. "There have been some hiccups and we just need to know what those hiccups are before Phase 2 legislation is just bum-rushed, I just think that Morelle and Bronson are irresponsible when it comes to pushing this legislation.
Assemblyman David Gantt (D, Rochester) said he supported Phase 1 funding but refuses to sign on to legislation funding Phase 2.
"If we have a federal investigation going on in this town around that issue why are we in such a rush to get this done? There's got to be something wrong somewhere and we need to find out what that is before we put the taxpayers money up again, said Gantt. "I'm going to vote no and I'm going to make sure that everybody understands that we will not be moving ahead. I think the Mayor, I'll let her speak for herself, I think she's probably in a similar position. We just want to know what happened to the money and why are we rushing ahead without knowing what's out there in terms of the investigation.
Gantt even pointed out the irony of his comments just two weeks after 13WHAM News broke news of the City foreclosing on a property he owned for thirty years because of his failure to pay taxes.
"It was me and I owed $700 for taxes people would be all over me, we're talking about $400 million for schools that aren't producing the kinds of kids that we want and then we do all this stuff and we don't know where this money's going, nobody can answer you and that is I think it's wrong, said Gantt. Again, taxpayer's money we have a fiduciary responsibility to protect that and that's why my name is not on that bill.
Morelle & Bronson respond
Assembly Majority Leader Joe Morelle said his legislation includes added safeguards and oversight protections to better protect taxpayers during the implementation of Phase 2. He said the need to put forward a bill now is so that planning for Phase 2 can move forward and work can begin in a seamless fashion as Phase 1 winds down.
"Phase 1 is winding down and if you waited for Phase 1 to be completely done before beginning Phase 2 you would have a significant lapse in construction, you would fall behind, so we can certainly begin planning on Phase 2 and continuing to ramp up before finishing Phase 1, explained Morelle. "We're going to do this the right way and that's why it's taken some time to craft this legislation but it will be introduced in the (NYS) Senate.
"Suspicion is one thing, making sure we take the appropriate action for our kids are what I'm all about, said Assemblyman Bronson. I want to take the appropriate action for our kids I want to make sure they have the opportunity to be educated and having good school buildings is a piece of that.
Bronson does not believe the suspicions or questions surrounding Phase 1 should impact Phase 2 legislation.
If there has been wrongdoing by some adults we're not going to punish our children because of that, said Bronson. We don't know if there's been actual wrong-doing, we know there's an investigation.
As to the investigation, Morelle offered information about what hes heard on that case.
"From everything I've been told internally and people who have met with the FBI this is a very, very narrow investigation about one particular compliance officer who is no longer part of the district," said Morelle.
Others weigh in
Morelle tells 13WHAM News he had a conversation with New York State Senator Joe Robach (R, Greece) and believes that Sen. Robach will sponsor the same legislation in the Senate by the end of this week.
13WHAM News was unable to get a response from Sen. Robachs office on this report.
A spokeswoman for Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren explained the mayor was out of town but that she had not seen Assemblyman Morelles legislation but would be looking for some very specific safeguards to be incorporated in order to support it.
Rochester City School Superintendent Bolgen Vargas offered the following statement:
I am delighted that our Facilities Modernization Plan legislation is moving forward and thankful to Majority Leader Morelle for introducing it in the Assembly. I remain extremely hopeful that the bill can be passed in this legislative session, allowing work on our Phase II projects to take place as scheduled, and avoiding the major disruptions that delay would cause. I hope the legislature will agree that the need to modernize Rochester schools for our students, along with the other benefits of these projects for our community, make this bill a priority.