Task force addresses Alabama bill amid building safety concerns

Published: Jul. 6, 2021 at 11:11 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - A task force organized by Gov. Kay Ivey met at the Statehouse Tuesday to discuss a bill passed by state lawmakers that is raising safety concerns about school construction projects.

Public safety officials say, if not amended, the bill could put first responders and students at risk.

As written now, House Bill 220 will remove oversight by the state on construction projects of $500,000 or less at K-12 schools and institutes of higher learning. The Division of Construction Management, or DCM, which is a state agency, typically provides oversight on projects. Under the law, that responsibility would be transferred to the governing board of each institution.

The disagreement amongst first responders and lawmakers who passed the bill, comes with the additional cost associated with state oversight on projects.

Local fire departments are responsible for inspecting existing buildings to make sure they still meet safety standards. First responders say eliminating state review could make buildings unsafe, and could put them and students in harm’s way.

Tim Love, president of the Alabama Association of Fire Chiefs, said he wants every building inspected properly no matter the cost.

“When they apply a monetary value to a project, complexity is the issue,” Love said. “You see some projects that are 20 and 30 thousand dollars can lead to tragedy, we’ve seen that in the past, so in our way of thinking and the way we look at codes, and we live by codes, applying a monetary value was not a safe approach. So we have high hopes that we’re going to make some adjustments that makes (HB 220) better, that we can get some assurances that they’ll be absolute code compliancy.”

Lawmakers who passed the bill say it was designed to reduce government oversight and cost. House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter said it’s costing some districts too much money to have DCM review construction projects.

“We certainty want to keep our schools safe, but when we’re spending, instead of $12,000 dollars, $300,000, and we’ve got portable classrooms in my county that we can’t replace because we’ve had to fix a roof that should have cost $12,000 there’s a problem,” said House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter.

Ledbetter says the bill wouldn’t remove inspection oversight entirely, but instead give institutions the ability to choose whether or not they want DCM review.

“Anything under $500,000 dollars you’d still have the oversight with architects, you’d have the oversight with the contractors. The architects are required to have inspectors on the job at that amount,” Ledbetter said.

“The other thing is if the school system wants to get the reviews done from DCM they can. It doesn’t ban them from doing it. It just gives them an option of whether to or whether not. So I think it’s up to the local school board, and at the end of the day it’s their money and they should have the option to spend it however they want to,” Ledbetter went on to say.

Overall, the meeting Tuesday gave the task force the opportunity to address some of the bill’s safety concerns before it’s implemented in February 2022.

One thing addressed at the meeting was the possibility of changing the $500,000 dollar amount. First responders want it lowered to ensure oversight on even the smallest projects. The Superintendent Association proposed increasing it to $750,000 because of the increased cost in construction projects brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The task force plans to hold a public hearing at their next meeting. It’s set for 11:30 a.m. at the State House on July 19.

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