By WILL WHATLEY, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A bill pending in the Alabama Senate regarding the construction of public buildings has some concerned about what it could mean to the safety of school buildings, while proponents see the legislation as a way to help education entities save money.
Bill sponsor Rep. Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said House Bill 220 would help decrease building costs for public schools by reducing bureaucratic red tape, enabling money to be better used. He gave an example of a $2.4 million project being reduced to $1.7 million.
“I’ve heard from K-12 and (Alabama Community College System) about the construction costs increasing due to red tape,” Ledbetter, the House majority leader, said. “This bill would help them save money, money that can be better spent elsewhere.”
The bill would remove the state Division of Construction Management’s authority to manage construction and renovation projects at schools and colleges and give it instead to the Alabama State Department of Education or the managing boards of colleges and universities.
It would also reduce current fees on capital projects less than $500,000 and roof and HVAC repairs and maintenance.
However, some contractors aren’t on board with the bill. Alabama Associated General Contractors CEO Billy Norrell is worried Ledbetter’s legislation could not only lead to shoddy construction but misuse of public funds. AAGC has distributed materials saying the bill equates to “the fox watching the hen house.”
“Safety and code compliance are of the utmost importance,” he said. “This legislation would impact these things along with funding oversight. Our fear is about the opportunities to bypass code compliance and safety measures.”
Leadership at ACCS has advocated for the bill.
“The Alabama Community College System, including the ACCS Board of Trustees and all of our 24 college presidents, is completely supportive of House Bill 220,” Chancellor Jimmy Baker told Alabama Daily News. “Various process inefficiencies and interpretative decisions by the Division of Construction Management have led to increased project scope, delays, and cost increases on numerous construction projects at our colleges over the years. The ACCS Board of Trustees has the expertise to take on the oversight of the construction management process for community college projects, saving time and money while also fully complying with existing bid laws, appropriate building codes, and other local, state, and federal requirements.”
The House approved the bill on a 96-1 vote in late February and it received unanimous support in the Senate Government Affairs Committee earlier this month.
Norrell said history has proven that some contractors will cut corners on a project and that could affect the general public.
“If you hire an AGC member, you’re going to get a quality product,” Norrell added. “But not everyone out there is like that. We need to make sure things are done properly.”
Ledbetter said all codes remain in place and fire and tornado codes are strengthened under his bill.
“My whole family is public schools,” said Ledbetter, adding he has two sons who are public school teachers. “No one wants schools safer than I do.”
Alex Whaley Sr. with Whaley Construction in Troy underscores Norrell’s argument by suggesting that this bill may end up costing schools money.
“If you have to have contractors come in to fix problems, you’ll end up spending more in the long run than you would’ve spent in the first place,” he said.