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City demands work start on schools Contractor told to begin immediately

Buffalo put the contractor in charge of its massive school construction project on notice this week -- start work immediately on $10 million in improvements the contractor had placed on the back burner.

Even if it means the contractor, LP Ciminelli, loses money.

The improvements, which some value at closer to $16 million, include big-ticket items such as auditorium renovations, new ceilings and outdoor site improvements at 13 city schools targeted for renovation this year.

"We expect everything to be completed," said Gary M. Crosby, the school district's chief financial officer. "We've put them on notice that, as far as we're concerned, there is no 'add-back' list."

LP Ciminelli, the project manager, created the "add-back" list -- improvements temporarily set aside until it found a way to pay for them -- because of rising construction costs and other obstacles.

The list also raised questions -- even doubts -- that the 10-year schools project would provide the same high-quality learning environments it produced during the first wave of construction.

Ciminelli's decision also revived questions about one of the program's assets -- a guarantee that all the work will get done, even if it means a loss for the private contractor in charge of the program.

Crosby, in a Feb. 22 letter to Ciminelli, referred to that guarantee in suggesting the contractor would bear the cost of delaying improvements approved by the state Education Department.

Ciminelli executives have acknowledged the guarantee and have agreed to proceed with the improvements.

Ciminelli spokesman Kevin C. Schuler said the firm plans to add back all the approved projects and also will add further enhancements desired by the district.

Ciminelli is faced with a two-pronged problem: construction costs that are suddenly higher than expected, and a cap on the amount of funding it receives from the state.

Locally, construction costs have increased an average of 1 percent a month, or 12 percent over the past year. Experts blame the increase on higher oil prices and the demand for building materials in the hurricane-ravaged Gulf states.

Adding to Ciminelli's problems are a few factors that are unique to the schools project, most notably a lack of competition among subcontractors, which drove up the prices Ciminelli has to pay.

Eager to cut costs, Ciminelli is working with its architects and subcontractors to identify potential savings.

"It's the unforeseen issues I'm concerned about," said Donald Van Every, the Board of Education's North District member, when asked about the obstacles facing Ciminelli.

One of those issues is an upcoming audit by State Comptroller Alan Hevesi. School officials are worried the state, which is paying for the lion's share of the work, may find fault with Buffalo's approach to renovating its aging system.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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