Archive for Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Guest Column: Maintenance plan funding a must

April 25, 2007

As the Kansas Legislature reconvenes for the veto session there are some critical questions that should be asked.

1. Would Kansans accept hospitals, highways or other state facilities that aren't adequately maintained?

2. Do most 50-year-old buildings, and older, need ongoing maintenance to keep them in good repair?

3. Do things cost more today than they did when Dwight Eisenhower was president?

If your answers are No, Yes and Yes then we are in agreement on the basic premise that our state's university buildings are deserving of a sound deferred maintenance program.

Citizens for Higher Education is a statewide business-based organization that believes strongly in the economic benefit our state derives from well-educated young men and women. They are the lifeblood of our future; the people who will think of new inventions, build new businesses, create new jobs and move our state forward. But, they can't achieve their full potential nor do their best work in facilities that are antiquated and ill-suited for today's high-tech world.

Clearly, residents of Kansas would not be satisfied with a 50-year-old highway system of two lane roads and narrow bridges or with hospitals using iron lungs or ether to treat their patients. Why then should our hard-working students and their parents -- who have scrimped, saved and borrowed to attend college in Kansas -- be asked to settle for less?

Today, the average age of our state's university inventory of buildings hovers around 50 years, with many buildings dating to the early 1900s. As these facilities continue to age we can only expect the maintenance bills to grow even more. Everyone certainly recognizes the need for ongoing maintenance of our homes to avoid big-ticket expenses and repairs down the road.

It was 1955 when the state Educational Building Fund was set at 1 mill. I suspect that was an adequate amount at that time, and that legislators believed the fund would keep pace with costs as property assessments rose. But that hasn't been the case. Growing student bodies, expanding campuses, aging buildings and inflation driven by energy, labor and material costs have taken their toll, to the point that the available money in the Educational Building Fund today generates just 18 percent of the estimated $84 million in annual maintenance needs.

Have the Kansas Board of Regents universities done everything they could to keep their buildings in good repair, beyond what the EBF provides? Yes, because the primary focus has been to hire and retain quality faculty. Still Kansas lags the Big 12 average in the amount it pays faculty. To attract and keep good teachers the universities have worked hard to keep salaries within 10 percent to 15 percent of the Big 12 average. With most of their appropriations being spent this way, there wasn't much left in the budget for maintenance other than the educational building fund.

We readily acknowledge that the Legislature faces similar competing challenges. We appreciate their complexity and understand that every issue has its own constituency and justification. But, we must find a solution to the deferred maintenance issue or risk a serious decline in the quality, reputation and stellar image of higher education in Kansas.

The governor and the House and Senate leadership have devoted considerable time to this matter. We urge them to remain diligent and to seek consensus on a funding mechanism(s) that will address this critical problem.

-- Bill Hall, president of the Hall Family Foundation in Kansas City, is chairman of the Citizens for Higher Education

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