Regents universities' repair costs ballooning

You can see by the cracks in its brick walls that Wallace Hall on the Wichita State University campus has foundation problems. Look up at Jardine Hall, and tiles are missing from the roof.

They're visible signs of the backlog of maintenance projects dogging WSU and universities across the country.

"This issue has been out there on the horizon for the past several years but it is resonating more loudly on campuses across the country the past few months," said Dan Hurley at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities.

Most recently, the Kansas regents issued their report on repairs that need to be done at the six campuses they control. The report is completed every two years.

The backlog of work at the six Kansas regents universities reached $876 million for 2010, according a recent report. That's $51 million more than in 2008 and $213 million more than in 2006.

WSU had the biggest percentage increase in needed repairs since 2008 —22 percent. (An initial report that the WSU repairs amounted to a 49 percent increase was the result of a factoring error, said Mary L. Herrin, the university's vice president for administration and finance.) WSU's backlog

amounts to $60.3 million.

Cuts in state funding keep maintenance crews from making improvements and repairs on aging buildings, resulting in buckling, blistering and leaky roofs; water-stained walls and floors; and rotting pipes, said Ed Heptig, director of campus facilities at Kansas State University. That school has some of the system's oldest buildings and the highest-dollar backlog — $314.3 million.

The current number for KU: $229 million.

"You spend money to fix one or two major things, then other areas are let go because there's not enough money," Heptig said. "We limp by with patches and paint until money comes in to really fix the problem."

In 2007, the Legislature provided $63.7 million for a five-year program for university maintenance. Federal stimulus legislation added $45.8 million.

The new regents report says the universities would need $92 million annually to prevent more growth in maintenance needs. The campuses had $52 million for that purpose in the fiscal year ending in June.

Last week the Kansas House Appropriations Committee approved a bill to reduce university employee pay by 7.5 percent and require the saved dollars to go to repairs.

The bill would reduce school employees' final six paychecks of the 2011 fiscal year, which ends June 30. Regents do not support the measure, saying that it doesn't result in any savings to the state.

"As any homeowner knows, routine maintenance and repair gets more expensive to fix the longer it's deferred," said Gary Sherrer, chairman of the Kansas Board of Regents.

Had it not been that the nation's economic recession held down construction costs, according to the report, the dollar amount of the backlog might have climbed even higher.

John Gist, director of facilities planning at WSU, thinks needed repairs were underestimated at WSU the last time campus buildings were audited, in 2008. That is part of the reason for the 22 percent increase in deferred maintenance reported for 2010 over 2008.

"Then in two years the replacement cost of all this has gone up, and problems have surfaced in those two years," Gist said.

Most of the problems at WSU are not visible, he said. Duerksen Fine Arts Center is one example. The original heating, cooling and ventilation system of the 1953 building is being replaced in three stages, at an estimated cost of $7 million.

There's no way that can be covered by the $1.6 million a year WSU receives from the state to cover repairs and improvements. The first two of three phases of the Duerksen work are part of the improvements being made with $5 million WSU received in stimulus money. That money also will cover reroofing Jardine and some other campus buildings.

"We do repairs and maintenance ongoing all the time," Gist said, but whatever is not urgent gets deferred for lack of money.