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Accounting for Asbestos-Cleanup Costs Demanded

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New York City officials have demanded a full accounting for cost overruns in the school system's emergency asbestos cleanup after learning that the effort is significantly over budget.

Barry E. Light, the president of the New York City School Construction Authority, this month notified Schools Chancellor Ramon C. Cortines that the cleanup effort had run out of funds, forcing him to put off assigning some high-priority work.

Mr. Light said his agency had contracted to spend $19 million more than the $64 million allocated to it by the New York City board of education in an effort to clean up boiler rooms and reopen schools that had been closed after the discovery of widespread problems in the district's prior asbestos-management efforts.

And, he said, the agency needs an additional $36 million just to complete critical projects, such as cleaning up asbestos in heating systems before colder weather sets in.

One key goal of the cleanup appeared accomplished late last week, however, as school officials said they were reopening the last of 115 schools that had been closed for emergency asbestos abatement.

The revised S.C.A. cost estimates raised the projected bill for the emergency cleanup to at least $119 million, more than three times the $34 million estimate first offered by the S.C.A. in September.

Moreover, the revised estimates account for only those schools deemed to require the most immediate or extensive work, and do not cover all of the asbestos abatement needed at approximately 350 city schools.

Guiliani Threatens Action

Mr. Light assured Mr. Cortines that his agency is "emphasizing cost containment as well as the speed and quality of our work,'' and he pledged to increase the scope of the S.C.A.'s monitoring of projects as new contractors are taken on.

But those assurances were met with skepticism from Mr. Cortines and officials in the city government, which provides most of the school system's budget.

Peter F. Vallone, the speaker of the New York City Council, told Mr. Cortines that he wanted a full accounting of the cost overruns, and called for a council committee to hold public hearings on the matter.

"We are not about to supply another penny unless proof is given to us as to how this money is spent,'' Mr. Vallone said at a news conference.

Amid speculation that disclosure of the cost overruns had been deliberately delayed until after the Nov. 2 mayoral election, Mayor-elect Rudolph W. Guiliani warned that he might take the asbestos cleanup out of the hands of school authorities when he takes office.

"If the situation is not properly handled in the next six or seven weeks, we'll move to bring in people from the outside to assess it,'' Mr. Guiliani told reporters during a visit to a public school.

Mr. Cortines told Mr. Light that he would ask the city school board to provide an additional $23.5 million for the cleanup effort.

The chancellor added, however, that the release of the funds would be contingent on the S.C.A.'s providing a full explanation of the cleanup costs and cost overruns by the end of the month.

"Our foremost objective must be for instruction to resume as quickly as possible in every New York City school,'' Mr. Cortines said. "But that commitment does not diminish our obligation to prudently manage our resources.''

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