In our opinion: Deferred maintenance costs for university buildings can balloon without proper planning

Published: Sunday, May 18 2014 12:00 a.m. MDT

Visitors tour the building as the Wayne Estes Center opens at the Utah State University in Logan, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (Ravell Call, Deseret News) Visitors tour the building as the Wayne Estes Center opens at the Utah State University in Logan, Wednesday, May 14, 2014. (Ravell Call, Deseret News)

When a university unveils a new building or stadium, it often attracts lots of attention and publicity – as happened last week when Utah State University unveiled its new Wayne Estes Center for basketball and volleyball, a gleaming 32,000-square-foot, $9.7 million investment. Deseret News columnist Doug Robinson referred to the new building in discussing the “athletics arms race” on university campuses. For example, the University of Utah is constructing a new $36 million basketball facility, less than a year after the school completed a $32 million football center.

The concern here is pretty simple: higher education can get quickly enamored with shiny new capital expenditures and lose sight of the far less glamorous requirement to maintain existing infrastructure. The former comes with attention and naming rights. The latter feels like it pulls from other operational priorities.

Yet the failure to keep ahead on basic infrastructure management quickly leads to ballooning costs. We are currently paying the price for that in other deferred maintenance projects at the University of Utah.

As Ben Wood reports in today’s Deseret News, the state of Utah owns and operates thousands of buildings, the majority of which are affiliated with higher education. The costs of maintaining these structures are staggering: it has created a backlog of $400 million alone at the U.

The current major infrastructure at the U., Wood reports, is a $99 million replacement of its electrical and plumbing systems. Sometimes projects like this are in part born from the simple inability to foresee future infrastructure needs: the labs were originally set up for 4000 volts, but that has now tripled to 12,000, according to Cory Higgins, executive director of facility and construction operations at the University of Utah.

The maintenance project was recently approved by the Utah Legislature for the next wave of funding. Having spent $43 million, it is now receiving another $56 million. In addition to replacing miles of wiring, 80 buildings still need new transformers to run at consistent, modern voltages. When the project is complete, a load monitoring system will provide the campus with greater power supply flexibility, said Higgins.

Part of the challenge in keeping an eye on the high cost of deferred maintenance may stem from the fact that the Legislature’s Infrastructure and General Government Committee deals with capital improvements, while the Higher Education Appropriations Committee deals with maintenance. Sen. Stephen Urquhart, R-St. George, chairman of the latter committee, said that he hopes that the disconnect “is something that will be resolved over the interim."

As mundane as the task of monitoring construction maintenance may seem, its prioritization is a hallmark of sound fiscal management. It shows genuine care for the students being served. Shunting it off to the future is yet another form of generational warfare.

Frequently, university officials argue that construction is driven by the priorities of wealthy donors. But as Robinson said in his column, “In most cases, the university presidents have great sway with big donors and can direct their funding to what they consider priorities.” We’d like to see universities endow a chair for deferred maintenance of new buildings.

Institutions that stay atop of maintenance costs are more likely to manage infrastructure efficiently. They will look for the most intensive use of existing infrastructure. They will also seek alternatives to physical infrastructure, including online courses, as means of delivering instruction.

At the very least, those involved with university development on both the solicitation and the donor side should appreciate the need to seek funding to endow ongoing maintenance of structures at the same time that capital funds are donated. This allows the luster of shiny new edifices to last.

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