Headed for the cliff? University of Utah maintenance backlog tops $400 million

Published: Saturday, May 17 2014 4:15 p.m. MDT

Layton Construction superintendent Eric Gardner shows different maintenance projects underway University of Utah Monday, April 28, 2014.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — The state of Utah owns and operates thousands of buildings, the majority of which are located on or are affiliated with the campuses of Utah's institutions of higher education.

The buildings are costly to construct and make headlines when new brick and mortar projects are announced. But the costs of maintaining the buildings has become a growing concern, a backlog that now tops $400 million alone at the University of Utah and increases each year, said Cory Higgins, executive director of facility and construction operations at the U.

"We’re not to this situation yet, but you can get to a position where all of your funding is just spent fixing things that are already broken," Higgins said. "It’s always more expensive to fix it after it breaks than it is to prevent it from being broken. That’s the cliff that we are all trying to avoid."

When campuses are forced to deal with large-scale facility failures, like the ongoing expensive overhaul of the U.'s water and electricity infrastructure, smaller projects are often set aside, resulting in an ever-increasing backlog of needed and costly deferred maintenance.

Sen. Wayne Harper, R-Taylorsville, co-chairman of the Infrastructure and General Government committee, said the U. infrastructure project is an example of where neglected maintenance "came back to bite us."

He said statewide there are a number of buildings showing the impact of deferred capital improvement projects, not due to negligence by administrators but because there haven't been sufficient funds to keep up with building needs.

He gave the examples of the science building at Weber State University and the music building at Utah State University Eastern, which have both been approved for replacement by the Legislature. The buildings were well-built for their time, Harper said, but had become outdated.

"We need to go through and not just build and not worry about it," Harper said. "We need to build and have a plan for maintenance because, if we don’t, sometimes we’re worse off than had we not built it in the first place."

Higgins said neglected maintenance has the potential to reach a point where campus buildings lose functionality due to safety risks or failing equipment. The state may not be at the edge of a cliff, he said, but it is on a downhill slope that becomes steeper the longer it is ignored.

"I wouldn’t call it a crisis yet, but a lot of people are raising the alarm that we can’t continue to underfund these higher ed assets and expect to continue to compete in a worldwide market in education," he said.

Getting money

Higgins said the state has set a standard of allocating 1.1 percent of an asset's value each year for capital improvement. In the case of the University of Utah, that translates to roughly $20 million each year for improvement projects.

That figure is based on the combined value of all university buildings and increases proportionally with new construction, Higgins said, but does not currently account for green space, parking lots or roads and, until recently, did not include the electricity and water distribution systems that make up a campus' infrastructure.

Because infrastructure was not previously included in a campus' value, major replacements — like the roughly $100 million project the University of Utah is currently involved in — were not budgeted and came at the expense of other capital improvement needs. That put further strains on the resources available for routine and deferred maintenance, which were doubly impacted by the recession.

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