By KATE MOSTACCIO
The enacted 2020-21 State Budget appropriated funds for the first year of a two-year $11.9 billion state Department of Transportation (DOT) capital plan, aimed at continued investment in state and local roads and bridges, non-MTA transit, pedestrian and bike facilities, rail and aviation.
At a public hearing October 23, PEF Region 2 Coordinator and Executive Board member Andrew Puleo, a DOT regional highway work permit engineer, submitted written and oral testimony on behalf of PEF to the New York State Assembly Transportation Committee.
“PEF supports the enacted 2020-21 state budget for the first year of the two-year capital plan,” Puleo said. “This funding is critical to maintaining the state’s long-term economic competitiveness and continues the state’s laudable investments.
“While PEF supports this increased investment, PEF strongly believes that taxpayers deserve more representation and oversight in all phases of the contracting out of civil service work, including the design, construction and inspection of publicly-funded transportation, building and infrastructure projects.”
PEF urges the state to revisit the design-build procurement process.
“Design-build allows a single contractor to design, construct and inspect an entire project,” said Puleo. “Design-build bypasses competitive bidding laws, labor protections, transparency, fairness and impartial oversight.”
The process is flawed and not cost effective, Puleo said, and it benefits only a handful of large construction companies.
“Design-build has been derided by local contractors as harmful to them and therein harmful to your very own communities,” he said. Reports show that consultants cost between 65-87 percent more than comparable state employees. “It’s clear that there is no cost savings.
“The state should revert to its past practice of relying on its professional engineering, inspection and other staff at the DOT and other agencies to oversee, design, inspect and approve projects to ensure they are appropriately designed, utilize appropriate and quality construction products, and are completed in a manner that meets the specifications outlined in the originally approved design,” Puleo said.
Puleo further noted the state is facing a $15 billion shortfall, expected to grow to $60 billion or more over the next three years, yet still plans to spend more than $1 billion on outside service contracts for projects and services that public employees previously rendered.
Consultants lack the institutional knowledge of public employees, Puleo said. The use of consultants circumvents the civil service process, limiting women and minorities from accessing good public service jobs and diminishing taxpayer return on investment in funding the Department of Civil Service.
“PEF members believe that civil service laws should be maintained and strengthened,” Puleo said. “New York’s civil service system provides a ladder to the middle class for so many under-represented groups, including women and people of color, affording them the chance to join the middle-class and create a better life for themselves and their families.”
The first priority of consultant firms is to make money, Puleo said, therefore their inspection teams represent the interests of the company first and the taxpayers second.
“State inspectors are employees of the taxpayers and hold, as primary function, an allegiance and accountability to the taxpayer,” he said.
The impacts of COVID
The COVID-19 pandemic highlights the need to fortify state workforce capacity, protect quality public services and develop adequate staffing plans for all state agencies, Puleo said.
“Since 2009, the NYSDOT has lost 17 percent of its workforce,” he said. “Despite chronic understaffing, forced redeployments, mandated overtime and concerns over infecting family members, the state workforce continued to show up and get the job done.”
PEF members are concerned about the budget shortfall’s potential impact on their jobs and Puleo urged support for legislation S.8940, sponsored by Sen. Neil Breslin, which would require cuts in payments to vendors who render outside services before any cuts are applied to the state workforce. The legislation also precludes state agencies from entering into new outside service contracts for the duration of the fiscal year.
“If cuts are required, they should not be limited to the hard-working state employees who have served on the frontlines during this pandemic,” Puleo said. “Not one construction inspector or bridge inspector should be furloughed or laid off while for-profit inspectors remain funded with taxpayer dollars.”