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Mayor May Seek Control of APS Projects Budget

By Amy Miller
Copyright 2006 Albuquerque Journal; Journal Staff Writer
    Mayor Martin Chávez says he will consider asking the state Legislature for the power to take over Albuquerque Public Schools' capital budget.
    The school district's struggle to build schools on the rapidly developing West Side proves that APS cannot build fast enough to meet demand, Chávez said.
    "It's the perfect example of bureaucratic inertia," he said.
    It's one more reason why Chávez says APS needs systemic reform. In recent months, Chávez has said he also wants the authority to appoint school board members.
    APS officials admit that in past years the school district wasn't moving enough projects through the system quickly.
    But in the last two years, they've reorganized the facilities department and hired more staff. Now APS is handling more construction projects worth more money than in previous years.
    Of the 331 projects in the school district's 2001-2005 capital master plan— which prioritizes the district's construction needs— 161 have been completed; 134 are in being designed or built; and 36 are on hold.
    The projects are funded by voter-approved property taxes and general obligation bonds.
    "We think we've come a long way," said Brad Winter, executive director of APS facilities.
    And APS officials question whether the Mayor's Office understands what it takes to oversee the school district's construction needs, which they have said amount to $1.7 billion.
Convincing voters
    To raise some of that capital, APS is asking voters to approve a $351 million bond package for school construction on Sept. 19. If it passes, city residents' property tax bill would increase 5.6 percent. Taxes paid to APS would increase by nearly 25 percent.
    Before APS can persuade voters to OK higher taxes, it must show that it is spending the money it already has in a timely fashion, said the city's budget director, Anna Lamberson.
    She points out that in the last three years, APS has spent less than half of the capital money it has available, according to the school district's 2006-07 capital budget. For example last year, the district had $227 million available, but spent about $86 million.
    APS said the amount is closer to $90 million.
    There is no way APS could spend all the capital money it's authorized to spend in one year, said Kizito Wijenje, APS capital master plan director.
    Large construction projects sometimes take several years to complete, so money is often carried over from one budget year to the next until big projects are finished.
    Winter said APS can convince voters that it would spend any approved bond money as quickly as possible because projects are moving forward faster.
    Karen Alarid, director of APS facilities planning and construction, said that last year she oversaw 122 projects with a total value of $114 million. This year, she's handling 184 projects worth $312 million.
    The budget shows that the district spent less that year on construction projects because some were not completed and paid for in full.
    "It's been like turning around the Titanic," Alarid said.
    To do that, APS hired more architects and accountants.
    It reorganized its facilities department so that staff now handles projects in a specific school cluster, instead of random projects across the district. That makes it easier to know what schools really need and when, Alarid said.
    Winter said further proof that the APS capital program is financially sound is the school district's high bond rating. While both APS and the city have high quality bond ratings, Moody's Investors Service ranks APS slightly higher.
Is city up to the job?
    Winter also questions whether the city's staff really understands the intricacies and difficulties of keeping up with $1.7 billion in capital needs.
    "I just do not believe that the Mayor's Office has the expertise to address our capital budget," Winter said.
    Ed Adams, the city's chief operations officer, said he understands that capital projects sometime take years to pay for and complete.
    Adams said the city had trouble getting money out the door for capital projects several years ago, until he helped reorganize and streamline the city's capital program.
    The Mayor's Office could do the same for APS, Adams said, regardless of the size of its capital budget or the amount of work that needs to be done.
    "There's nothing special about a school whatsoever," Adams said.
    If the city did take over the APS capital budget, "it doesn't mean that APS sits on the bench," Adams said.
    The city would work with APS to build schools that meet specific requirements, such as class size or special education facilities.
    "That's where their expertise would come into play," Adams said.
    Mayor Chávez agrees that all government agencies will have a backlog of capital projects because they are always waiting for money.
    "But how much of that waiting is because of your own bureaucratic entanglements?" Chávez said. "That's an area where we have a fair amount of expertise."