New Bill Aims to ‘Drain the Swamp’ of Cost and Time Overruns at the Parks Department

Construction at John V. Lindsay East River Park.

Construction at John V. Lindsay East River Park. NYC Department of Parks and Recreation

The City Council will soon weigh a measure that would require Mayor Bill de Blasio’s Department of Parks and Recreations to regularly report to the local Council member when a project in their district is running late or over budget—and if the contractor the agency has chosen has ever fallen short in past work for the city.

Bronx Councilman Ritchie Torres will introduce the legislation today’s stated meeting. He told the Observer that some of the inspiration for the bill came from an eight-year delay in a Parks Department bike lane proposed for his district, the consequence of a wage theft suit against the contractor the city picked for the job—and from a separate playground refurbishment that has more than quadrupled in price.

The freshman lawmaker complained that he and his colleagues regularly dedicate large sums from their individual city spending pots—usually called member items—to Parks projects in their districts, only to have the agency later come back to them and say the amount proved insufficient.

“The Parks Department has the worst capital program in the city,” he said in an interview with the Observer. “Parks Department capital projects are notoriously over budget, behind schedule and lawless when it comes to labor standards.”

Specifically, the bill would require the department to update the local Council member at least once every three months on the status of its projects on their turf. The briefing would have to include the day each development started or is scheduled to start, the day it ended or is scheduled to end, an explanation of any setbacks experienced or alterations to the designs, the name of the contractor selected for the job and a thorough delineation of any occasions that contractor has proved delinquent in the past.

Eventually, Torres said he hoped to see the department obligate every contractor on every project to procure a so-called project labor agreement: a deal with the unions on wage and labor standards before hiring begins. This, the councilman argued, would prevent situations like the one which transpired in his district: where a contractor ran into financial or legal problems or simply failed to comply with its commitments to the city, and the project wound up getting rebooted from the beginning.

“There’s a clear connection between the labor standards we set, and the efficiency of Parks Department projects,” said Torres. “Our aim is to drain the swamp in the dark world of Parks Department construction.”

Manhattan Councilman Mark Levine, chairman of the Committee on Parks, and Brooklyn Councilman Mark Treyger will co-sponsor the reporting bill. Levine echoed Torres’s exasperation with the department, claiming at least half the developments in greenspaces across his district have watched their budgets and calendars bloat uncontrollably.

“You can’t do anything in a park at this point for less than a million dollars, and even modest projects are multi-million dollar projects,” Levine told the Observer over the phone. “Most of the time, there is a cost overrun that we have to deal with. And it can threaten to kill a project.”

The Parks Department insisted that, under de Blasio’s Commissioner Mitchell Silver, it has introduced numerous changes to streamline the construction process. It claimed the alterations have on average shaved four to six months off the average timetable, and that 90 percent of developments are now finishing on schedule.

“NYC Parks has enacted a holistic, aggressive, and effective program of reforms to the capital process,” said spokesman Sam Biederman.

Updated to include comment from Parks.