Backlog of maintenance

From buildings filled with mold to faulty water and sewer systems that back up into classrooms, higher education leaders across Louisiana are growing increasingly concerned with the state’s backlog in repairing and renovating campus facilities.

The state Board of Regents estimates that colleges and universities are looking at a $1.7 billion price tag to address maintenance that’s been put off year after year for lack of state funds.

Most agree that the culprit is Louisiana’s sluggish and inefficient construction funding program, called capital outlay, in which hundreds of projects compete for limited state dollars. Campus leaders say small problems often turn into major health and safety concerns as repair requests languish for years or even decades in the capital outlay pipeline.

State Commissioner of Higher Education Jim Purcell called the backlog a significant problem, noting the cost of deferred maintenance on Louisiana’s college campuses has reached the point where it’s more than double the amount of money schools will have available to educate students next year.

Purcell and others have said the leaky roofs, outdated laboratories and the delay in making buildings handicap-accessible are putting Louisiana at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting students and training them to meet workforce demands.

At the State Capitol, legislators say governors historically have used the capital outlay program as a tool to reward allies and punish political enemies.

Gov. Bobby Jindal’s chief budget aide, Commissioner of Administration Kristy Nichols, said complaints over building repairs and renovations are overblown as the governor has pumped more than $700 million into building and fixing higher education facilities since 2008, including $116 million this year for new construction and major repairs.

“From our perspective, it’s outlandish to say the administration and the capital outlay process is not working for higher education,” Nichols said. “Without a shadow of a doubt, investing in higher education is a major priority for this administration.”

LSU has reaped many of the benefits of Louisiana’s investment in higher education in recent years. Since last year, the state has paid for or committed to more than $100 million for the university’s new Business Education Complex, Chemistry and Material Science Building and a new engineering facility.

“The state has been very good to LSU on new construction,” Jason Droddy, the university’s director of external affairs, said Thursday. But more than 40 percent of the university’s buildings were built more than half a century ago, with some parts of campus nearing 90 years old, he said.

Roger Husser, LSU’s director of facility services, said many of the university’s repair needs — including inefficient underground drainage systems, dilapidated roofs and outdated air conditioning units — aren’t easily noticed.

The problem, Husser said, is sporadic funding from the state, which makes it hard to plan repair and renovation projects. Campus officials said it’s been four years since they’ve received maintenance funding from the state.

“The reality is LSU is an old campus,” Husser said. “Its history is what gives it character; it’s what makes it LSU. But it’s more difficult to maintain. You have to be continually renovating the campus. We’ve never had a recurring funding stream. Some years we get no money; other years we get several million.”

LSU System President and Baton Rouge Chancellor William Jenkins said the problem has gotten to the point where some high school laboratories are more advanced than LSU’s.

“There’s little that’s more important than protecting our classrooms,” Jenkins said. “Because of the state’s budget, the trend is to look for private matching dollars to pay for some of this. But it’s very hard to ask companies and individuals for funds to fix drainage pipes or power sources.”

Across town, at Southern University, Chancellor James Llorens said his school doesn’t have the donor base that other schools have to pay for new buildings and major renovations as campus buildings fall into disrepair.

This past academic year, Southern had to do patchwork fixes when water lines backed up into T.H. Harris Hall and when leakage from heavy rains forced the university to close the School of Nursing’s classroom auditorium, Llorens said.

Officials estimate that just getting Southern’s water and sewer infrastructure up to date will cost the university $10 million.

“We’ve just not been able to address our needs for many, many years,” Llorens said. “We have older labs in need of complete replacement. We have issues with roofs and leaking windows. It really affects our students’ ability to go into their classrooms and have an adequate learning environment.”

Last week, the state House of Representatives sought to address some of the concerns on campuses when they passed House Bill 671, which allows institutions around the state to charge a fee of up to $48 to help schools keep up with building maintenance.

But Linda Robison, vice president of business at the University of New Orleans, warned that student fee increases can only go so far.

“Something’s got to give, but you can’t keep imposing fees on students,” she said. “As some point, you’re going to see diminishing returns.”

Going around the system

Frustration over the state’s construction funding program has come into focus during this year’s legislative session with a plan by the state’s community and technical colleges to sidestep the capital outlay system.

Generally, schools submit a wish list of projects to the Board of Regents, which prioritizes those requests and then passes them along to the Legislature. Under the right circumstances, the most pressing construction and maintenance projects would get funding, while less immediate needs would go to the back of the line until future dollars become available.

Senate Bill 204 would allow community and technical colleges to borrow more than $250 million to pay for 28 construction projects around the state including $39.7 million for Baton Rouge Community College and $92 million for Delgado Community College. Projects include building new facilities to train nurses, welders, pipefitters and other careers that meet workforce demand.

The bill has been widely criticized by higher education leaders who argue that the money to pay for those projects benefiting two-year schools would come out of the state general fund at a cost of roughly $20 million a year for the next 20 years — essentially reducing the amount of money available to Louisiana’s four-year schools over the next two decades.

Louisiana Community and Technical College System President Joe May has argued that his system is one of the fastest growing in the country. At the same time, the building housing Delgado Community College’s Charity School of Nursing is rife with mold, has no hot water and has a shoddy electrical system. Funding for those repairs has been stuck in the capital outlay backlog since 2002, he said.

May said SB204 is a critical step in advancing training programs that will fuel Louisiana’s future economy. “In capital outlay, projects get on the list and stay on the list. In our rural areas, you’ve got to go back to 1981 to find the last time some of these projects were funded,” he said.

A question of priorities

State Treasurer John Kennedy has also been a vocal critic of SB204. He said the bill will bust the state’s debt limit and will open the floodgates for other schools to go around the capital outlay program, therefore plunging the state further into debt.

But Kennedy acknowledges that capital outlay is far from an ideal system.

“It’s a political system that’s not based on the needs of the taxpayers. It’s based on the needs of politicians and that goes for every governor I’ve ever served with,” Kennedy said. “When the capital outlay bill passes in the Legislature, people think that’s how the money is going to be spent. That’s an illusion. The governor gets to pick and choose which projects to fund. It’s used to pay back political favors.”

In past years, governors have used state dollars to pay for private endeavors, including $140,000 toward a new fence for the Kingwood Homeowner’s Association in eastern New Orleans and roughly $500,000 to renovate the headquarters for the Junior League of Greater New Orleans, Kennedy said.

State Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said based on the need to prioritize projects for the good of the state, there isn’t any obvious fix for the capital outlay system.

“It’s very political, and I can understand that it’s failing. But I don’t think there’s any way to completely take politics out of the process,” Claitor said.

State Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, suggested that the Legislature should have more input, or even control over what projects ultimately get funded.

With three more weeks left in this year’s session, legislators have demonstrated a willingness to buck the governor. In rejecting Jindal’s proposed spending plan for next year, House members included $19 million in new capital outlay funds for each of Louisiana’s four college and university systems.

But regardless of if those dollars will still be there when next year’s budget bill is signed into law, Smith said the issue comes down to identifying new sources of money for the state.

“I think there can be some sort of a compromise,” she said. “The Legislature, I believe, knows better what’s happening around the state. We have more contact with people; we have our boots on the ground,” she said. “But I believe wholeheartedly that we need to look into some of these tax exemptions. Until we get to the point when the governor is willing to accept new revenue, our hands are tied.”