City College's Deferred Emergency

Last March, City College of San Francisco sounded an alarm. Years of deferred maintenance have left the school's roughly two million square feet of property throughout the city in dire need of $270 million worth of “emergency” repairs.

But this is not a typical emergency — nor is the manner in which CCSF is handling the crisis.

In December, Susan Lamb, the school's interim chancellor, asked City College's elected Board of Trustees to declare an “emergency situation.” That would allow the college to suspend competitive bidding to quickly award contracts for the “urgent” repair work. Nothing less than the “health and safety” of City College's estimated 70,000 students — and the school's ability to host classes (while the drama over its accreditation continues) — depends on it, she said.

The woes seem mostly mundane. A failing air conditioner in the Creative Arts building is leaking hundreds of gallons of water a day. The Student Health Center's boiler and part of the air conditioner system need replacement. A water main in Conlan Hall has been leaking since October. At the school's Downtown Center, an underground diesel storage tank is leaking fuel. And rust and a lack of state permits at the college's Child Care Center have forced the setup of a temporary location (and legal action against the construction firm that built it).

Fixing just these problems will cost approximately $3.8 million. The trustees unanimously approved the declaration of an emergency, which means that the required construction contracts can be issued quickly — without competitive bidding.

This rankles the school's watchdogs, who note that state law requires competitive bidding to prevent fraud or favoritism when public money is spent. These critics say CCSF is taking a broad interpretation of the California Public Contract Code's definition of “emergency” because few of these deferred maintenance-caused issues seem to meet the “sudden, unexpected occurrences” requirement.

“This is a real black eye for the administration,” says Cathryn Hilliard of the Construction Industry Force Account Council, which monitors publicly-funded construction projects. “They knew about the problems for quite some time and did not act. That does not qualify as an 'emergency' and all of these projects should be bid.”

Ron Gerhard, CCSF's vice chancellor of finance and administration, says formal bidding is a six to nine week process that requires weekly advertising in a newspaper.

“Even if we were to do that now, given the urgency needed to get these things fixed as soon as possible, we wouldn't be looking at closing out the bid until probably February,” he says, by which time students will be back and trying to study amid the leaks, rust, and cold of buildings lacking heat.

Hilliard isn't buying the sudden sense of urgency.

“A lack of planning is not an emergency and these are not maintenance issues, and the fact they were actually operating the Child Care Center without permits is also very highly questionable,” she says. “Who's in charge? Somebody needs to be accountable that the buildings are maintained and up to standard.”

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