Maintenance costly for Md. universities

Flooding, leaky roofs among problems

regents to vote on plan for repairs

December 08, 2005|By SARAH ABRUZZESE | SARAH ABRUZZESE,SUN REPORTER

COLLEGE PARK -- Pipes have burst. Ceilings leak. And when there's a forecast for heavy rain, maintenance workers rush to surround at least one building with sandbags.

That is life at the University of Maryland, College Park and some of the state system's 10 other campuses, where floods and other maintenance-induced calamities have damaged expensive equipment, ruined complex research and hampered efforts to recruit top-notch faculty.

"This is a more common occurrence than we would like to think," said Michael Doyle, chairman of the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the flagship campus. "Just this past spring, we had another pipe break over a Department of Geochemistry research operation and flooded there."

With a repair bill at the College Park campus estimated at $500 million - and the University of Maryland System total estimated at $1.6 billion - the Board of Regents is scheduled to vote tomorrow on a plan to force each campus to dedicate a larger portion of its operations budget to renovations and repairs.

Under the proposal, the schools in the state system would be required to set aside 2 percent of the replacement value of their capital assets in their operating budgets to perform maintenance and repairs. System officials also will seek more funding from the state for next year.

"The goal of the backlog is not to get to zero, but to get to a number that is workable, that can be addressed through future capital budget allocations," said David H. Nevins, chairman of the Board of Regents. "There will never be a day on a particular campus where there will be no facilities that need any type of refurbishing."

University officials say the maintenance problems are exacerbated by the number of buildings that are more than 50 years old - the age when such crucial components as electrical wiring and heating and cooling units need expensive replacement. More than a quarter of the space in the 300-plus buildings on the College Park campus are at least that old, said John D. Porcari, the university's vice president for administrative affairs.

So in the laboratory of Robert Walker, an associate chemistry professor, the advanced membrane research has to be protected by a canopy of plastic glass and wood - keeping water from the ceiling leaks off of $750,000 worth of equipment. In 2003, a burst pipe on the floor above Walker's laboratory cost his team between six weeks and three months worth of research time, as well as $50,000 to fix the equipment, Doyle said. The protective canopies are popping up around other labs on campus.

"You have state-of-the-art equipment, but you have to go to the wood shop to build a canopy to put around," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat and chairman of a Senate education subcommittee, who recently joined a College Park tour for members of the General Assembly.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the physics building where he took classes in 1964 was "exactly as it exists today."

The Maryland system's crumbling infrastructure and neglected repairs are part of a larger national problem. In 1997, colleges and universities across the country reported a nearly $26 billion backlog in repairs and maintenance, according to a study by the Association of Higher Education Facility Officers. Institutions aren't putting aside money for maintenance, said Lander Medlin, the executive vice president.

To be sure, not all of the universities are in dire situations.

Roger Bruszewski, Frostburg State University's vice president of administration and finance, said the school is in good shape and does not need to reserve additional dollars toward renewal. A University of Maryland Eastern Shore official reports that the school is keeping up with its repairs.

And after years of neglect, Baltimore's Coppin State University has received $99.1 million in capital funds since 2001 and is set to get an additional $90 million for a new physical education complex. But while new construction is going a long way toward fixing things, "we still need more operating dollars to maintain our existing buildings," said Maqbool Patel, the school's associate vice president for capital planning, procurement and contracts.

Nevertheless, necessary maintenance activities have frequently been skipped on many of the campuses, officials say, as tight funding has forced dollars to go to other expenses. Taking care of the maintenance will enable schools to concentrate on education initiatives, they say.

"If you own a home and your roof has to be replaced, then, regardless of where your own individual budget situation is, you are probably going to find a way to take care of that roof," said Robert L. Pevenstein, chairman of the regents' finance committee. "And if something else in your home budget has to be adjusted for a while, you are going to do that."

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