Calif. watchdog: Historic reviews slow stimulus

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Dozens of construction projects funded with federal stimulus money are being delayed in California because the office that oversees historic preservation is overwhelmed with applications, the state’s stimulus watchdog said Monday.

In a letter to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Inspector General Laura Chick asked that more staff be made available to accelerate the review process. She said the backlog will grow because the bulk of stimulus money for public works projects is just beginning to flow to states.

“This is trying to get the problem from getting worse,” Chick said in an interview.

At stake are desperately needed jobs for Californians that would be created through new construction and retrofits, she said in her letter.

The state Office of Historic Preservation, an entity of the National Park Service that is an administrative unit of the state Department of Parks and Recreation, is just one of many agencies that must sign off on construction projects before they can begin.

For example, if an alternative energy company is proposing a solar project, the office must make sure the land does not include Native-American artifacts. Similarly, modifying a building that is a registered historic landmark cannot undermine its architecturally significant features.

Chick said many of the delayed projects are small, such as installing a new heating and air conditioning unit. Others are larger infrastructure projects, from a Highway 101 bypass in Mendocino County to rehabilitation of the Pasadena Civic Center, according to lists provided by the inspector general’s office.

California is expected to receive more than $50 billion from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Of that, more than $12 billion is dedicated to transportation, energy, water and housing projects.

Given the crush of applications needing review, the preservation office has been overwhelmed.

In her letter to Schwarzenegger, Chick said the governor could extend the work weeks of historians, archaeologists and other key personnel by modifying his furlough order, transferring workers from other government agencies or temporarily hiring retired state workers.

Schwarzenegger created Chick’s position last spring to make sure federal stimulus money headed to California was spent efficiently and as it was intended. Chick said she brought the backlog to the attention of the governor’s Recovery Task Force, the entity that tracks the stimulus money, last fall.

Asked what response she received from the task force, Chick responded, “I can only say the problem still exists today. So whatever the response has been needs to become more vigorous.”

The state parks department referred inquiries to the governor’s office. Camille Anderson, a spokeswoman for the Recovery Task Force, said the governor’s office will ensure that adequate staff is available to handle the applications.

“Like the inspector general, we are completely unsatisfied with … efforts to address this and, accordingly, last week we ordered the backlog to be cleared within 30 days,” she said in a statement.

Qualified workers will be transferred from other state agencies while additional workers will be trained to handle the historic review process, Anderson said.