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No longer will civic construction projects like park restrooms and school air conditioning drag on for years and into millions of dollars hidden from daylight, sponsors of a bill expected to pass the City Council Tuesday hope.
The legislation would create an online public capital projects tracker, to be fleshed out by a task force from multiple city agencies — giving the public and budget watchdogs a view into a notoriously murky area of spending.
“It’s a really good step toward that kind of transparency and accountability we need to get those capital and construction projects delivered on time and on budget,” said Councilmember Brad Lander (D-Brooklyn), the measure’s primary sponsor and a 2021 candidate for city comptroller.
New York City made more than $10 billion in new capital commitments in the current fiscal year, according to Comptroller Scott Stringer. The mayor’s Office of Management and Budget supplies some spending information about those projects — buried in massive documents posted online, but not in a form that can be analyzed or readily reviewed.
The new public database would yield a running tab on costs and schedules for all projects receiving city capital funds: everything from roads and bridges to schools, parks and libraries. Also included would be some of the affordable housing created or preserved under Mayor Bill de Blasio’s 300,000-apartment plan.
“We welcome the City Council’s collaboration on these efforts to increase visibility into the status of capital projects,” said Laura Feyer, a spokesperson for the mayor, who supports the idea of an online tracker.
While the bill directs the task force to get to work on dreaming up the database within 60 days, building on city agencies’ various existing systems, the project’s cost and completion date remain unknown.
A seven-member advisory committee, with a spot reserved for a mayoral appointee, would meet twice annually to oversee progress.
“We will better know the cost and timeline associated with this project” after task force members convene and figure out how they will put together the database, Feyer noted.
Lander conceded that making the information public won’t be an easy task. “It’s a complicated project,” he said.
The city already maintains the Capital Projects Dashboard, which tracks works-in-progress. But it’s limited only to projects costing over $25 million. By Lander’s calculation, that represents less than 3% of capital projects citywide.
The city Department of Parks and Recreation and School Construction Authority, meanwhile, share limited information on projects’ schedules and budgets. “It’s very difficult now to even know which projects are behind schedule or over budget, much less try to identify the characteristics of those,” he said.
Chris Whong, a self-described “civic hacker” who founded Planning Labs during a stint working at the Department of City Planning, said the spirit of the bill is sound.
But he has concerns about building a new database when the mayor’s Office of Management and Budget already has an internal system that tracks capital projects, he said. Instead of mobilizing an interagency effort to create a new system, Whong suggested, the city should open up that existing one.
“It’s a gargantuan task to try and compile information from various agencies,” he said.
However it happens, Maria Doulis of the Citizens Budget Commission says more insight into the city’s project spending will be welcome. She said she’s tried but failed to monitor projects through existing channels.
“It’s really hard to put that together because we lack data on actual costs and timelines for projects,” she said.
“Getting the data is going to allow both the Council and watchdogs to ask better questions, and to understand what we’re getting out of the capital program, because infrastructure is really important, and maintaining infrastructure is important,” said Doulis. “And we don’t know enough about how well the city is doing.”
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