New York Times: City Building Agency May Farm Out Tests
Published: November 19, 2009
Even as it faces a $5 billion budget deficit, service cuts and possible layoffs, the Bloomberg administration is preparing to spend several million dollars to hire a private testing firm to administer construction industry licensing exams that are currently overseen by city employees.
The city has administered most of the tests in-house for decades, but recently sought proposals from outside firms to give the written and practical examinations for 16 construction and building maintenance trade licenses, from crane operator and master electrician to welder and elevator inspector.
The city’s goal in seeking an outside contractor was not entirely clear, but the effort comes after prosecutors last year exposed severe deficiencies in the way the Buildings Department
issues crane operator licenses. The city’s top crane inspector was arrested last year
on charges that he sold copies of the test and took bribes from a crane company to ensure that its employees passed the lowest level crane operators’ test, and court records showed that in years past, union officials helped unqualified organized crime associates obtain licenses.
The licenses for that and other trades are issued by the Buildings Department, which has been battered by corruption allegations and fatal accidents in recent years, including two crane collapses last year and the 2007 fire at the former Deutsche Bank tower
, which left two firefighters dead and nearly led to criminal charges against the city.
A spokesman for the Buildings Department, Tony Sclafani, suggested that the cost of administering the exam might be recouped through higher test fees, but said that the decision on whether to hire an outside contractor had not been finalized.
“These tests are critical to ensuring these types of work are performed by qualified individuals, and the department is evaluating whether a private vendor could provide a more effective and efficient way to administer the examination,” Mr. Sclafani said in a statement.
Mr. Sclafani offered few specifics about how a plan to give the work to outside contractors might improve safety, an issue that has become a focus of reforms and legislation by Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg
and the City Council over the past two years. Mr. Sclafani did acknowledge, however, that an outside contractor “could better ensure integrity.”
While the city sought proposals from several outside firms, only one company, Total Safety Consulting
, responded by the Oct. 28 deadline, according to several people with knowledge of the process who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the bidding process has not been completed. Mr. Sclafani would not indicate whether the agency would extend the deadline or seek more proposals, saying only that the agency “was reviewing what has been proposed.”
Councilwoman Jessica S. Lappin, whose Yorkville district includes the site of one of the fatal crane collapses and who proposed some of the recent legislation aimed at overhauling the construction industry and increasing safety, criticized the city’s outsourcing effort.
“Our track record for outsourcing these kinds of things isn’t great,” Ms. Lappin said. “It would be one thing to say, ‘We think this is going to make you a whole lot safer,’ but I haven’t heard them talk about this at all.”
James C. Bifulco, an official at Total Safety Consulting, the company that bid on the contract, cited its track record with several city and state agencies and said the company’s proposal would save the city money, although he declined to provide specifics because the work had not yet been awarded. “We’ve consistently met every guideline for integrity and confidentiality,” said Mr. Bifulco, whose company trains site safety managers and who worked with the city in recent years to update the building code.
Neither the city nor Mr. Bifulco would discuss how much his company had bid, but several veteran testing officials estimated that the cost to the city for such a contract would be roughly $2.5 million over five years.
The Buildings Department’s 73-page request for proposals, which lays out what the agency wants a private contractor to do, said it was seeking a company to handle the tests for the 16 licenses over five years starting in April 2010. The company would be required to regularly update the written and practical exams. Among the requirements, the agency wants a contractor with no less than five years’ experience that can test 1,000 candidates a year, offering the written tests at sites across the city, within walking distance of subway or bus stops.
The licenses covered by the contract, in addition to mobile crane operators, elevator inspectors and their supervisors, site safety managers, welders, master plumbers and electricians, include: tower crane rigger; master rigger; special rigger; master and special sign hangers; high-pressure boiler operating engineer and portable high-pressure boiler operating engineer; fire suppression piping contractor; and oil-burning equipment installer.
Three of the 16 tests, including one for site safety managers, were given by the Buildings Department in recent years until it contracted them out to another company, most recently Prometric. The other 13, including the test for mobile crane operators, are administered by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services
, which also gives civil service and promotional exams for firefighters and police officers.
But the licenses are issued by the Buildings Department, which under the new plan would have responsibility for overseeing the testing for all 16 trades that would be administered by the private contractor.
Prometric, which did not return a phone call seeking comment, has not bid on the larger contract, according to several people with knowledge of the matter.
Both the Buildings Department and the administrative services agency said that any plan to contract out the work would not result in the layoffs of any city workers.