Repairs scarce at state colleges

Schools delay renovations because of lack of money

`We have to do something'

System officials expecting the situation to get worse

December 20, 2004|By Jason Song | Jason Song,SUN STAFF

At campuses throughout Maryland's public university system, vital classroom and building renovations are being put off because officials haven't set aside enough money for repairs.

The state's 11 campuses are supposed to have $96 million for work such as replacing roofs and windows and overhauling heating systems, but only about $30 million is available, officials say. The governor and General Assembly have not increased maintenance funding for several years, and system officials have been unwilling to divert other funds.

In an effort to stretch their dollars, many institutions are delaying needed renovations in favor of stop-gap repairs. For example:

University of Maryland, College Park administrators say they do not have enough money to replace a 35-year-old water pipe that runs near Tydings Hall. Instead of spending an estimated $150,000 for a new pipe, the school has repaired the old one eight or nine times, each time at a cost of at least $20,000.

At Bowie State University, officials want to renovate the Martin Luther King Jr. Communications Arts Center, which has failing heating and cooling systems and needs structural work. But the school can't afford the estimated $3.5 million cost and is instead doing smaller repairs such as re-enforcing sagging stairwells.

University of Maryland, Baltimore County officials are concerned that they will not be able to keep repairing roofs that should be replaced. About four of the school's 20 academic buildings need new roofs, according to Mark Behm, UMBC's vice president for administration and finance.

"At some point, the patches will outweigh the roof," he said.

Other universities say they, too, are contending with burst water pipes and faulty electrical systems. The problems are not dangerous, campus administrators say, but they are expensive and tedious to fix and could contribute to serious structural problems in the future.

System officials expect the problems to get worse. The universities will need nearly $1.7 billion to make repairs over the next 10 years, officials estimate.

At the same time, the system is bracing for an expected population boom. Officials estimate an additional 40,000 students could enroll in the state's public universities over the next decade, which would put an even greater strain on aging buildings.

"It's like having a three-bedroom house when your wife is expecting your fifth child, and you can't afford to buy a new house," said R. Michael Gill, a member of the University System of Maryland's Board of Regents.

System officials are looking into new ways to pay for the work, such as issuing more bonds, enticing private entities to contribute or asking the system's two nonteaching, research facilities to use grant overhead money to help pay for repairs.

The regents are expected to begin discussing the options early next year. "There's no favorite option," said Chancellor William E. Kirwan.

"It's absolutely clear that we have to do something about it," he added about the shortage of funding.

Nationally, universities have struggled to fund repairs. In 1997, schools had a nearly $26 billion shortfall, according to a study by the Association of Higher Education Facility Officers. "It's probably only gotten worse since then," said Lander Medlin, the executive vice president.

In Maryland, the regents approved a policy in 1992 that required universities to set aside 2 percent of the total cost of each institution's academic buildings within five years or "as soon thereafter as System funding levels allow."

Regents never seriously discussed how the system would find those funds. Universities have never come close to reaching the 2 percent goal, primarily because state funding has not increased, system officials say. The system receives nearly $30 million annually from the state for repairs.

Schools could take money from the operating budget, meant to pay for items such as professors' salaries and academics, to finance repairs, but system officials have been loath to do so.

"That would be changing the entire mission," said Mark Beck, the system's director of capital planning.

University officials have had to put off maintenance at many buildings.

When a large oak tree fell on the Glen Footbridge at Towson University during Tropical Storm Isabel last year, the repairs cost about $150,000. Most of the university's $1.4 million facilities-renewal budget was already allocated, said Steve Showers, who oversees facility management, so some projects had to be postponed. "You have to start making hard choices," he said.

Instead of doing expensive renovations, many universities are doing quick repairs, which are cheaper in the short term but could lead to expensive problems in the future.

At the system's flagship campus in College Park, the water main behind Tydings Hall broke again this month. Repairing the damage will cost at least $20,000, said Jack Baker, the university's director of operations and maintenance.

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