UNC-CH repair funds lacking

UNC-CH wants $645 million

Staff WriterMarch 25, 2010 

— A decade ago, UNC-Chapel Hill leaders helped persuade voters to approve a $3.1 billion bond package for higher education construction across North Carolina by pointing to a $500 million backlog in maintenance on their campus.

The funding helped UNC-CH address half its repair backlog, but remaining needs have grown. Now, the university is in a worse jam than before.

According to a report issued Wednesday, the cost of addressing UNC-CH's deferred maintenance needs - those drafty windows, leaky roofs and balky air conditioning systems - is $645 million.

Even as they spent the better part of the last decade cutting ribbons on new buildings, UNC-CH leaders knew there wasn't enough money to maintain the ones they already had.

"There's no real institutional solution to it yet," said Robert Winston, a campus trustee since 2003 and the current board chairman. "It's been a concern of mine for a long time."

Campus officials blame a number of factors for the swollen backlog, including a history of underfunding repair and renovations to state buildings and, more recently, a legislative decision to cut a reserve fund intended to pay for building repairs.

That cut cost UNC-CH $1 million this year. If it isn't restored, UNC-CH would lose $5.6 million more in the 2010-11 academic year.

Where the money went

Universities have struggled for decades to keep on top of their repairs.

In tight budget times, legislators have been quick to cut renovation funding, and campuses struggle to raise private money for the needs because donors don't get excited about paying for steam pipes and roofing.

The university's Carolina First capital campaign, which ended at the end of 2007, raised $185 million for facilities, most of it new construction.

At UNC-CH, officials put the last touches on the 49th and final project funded by the 2000 higher education bond just last month, ending a $515 million construction program. And already, campus leaders are talking about going back to the 17-campus UNC system - and the legislature - for another bond issue to raise money for repairs.

Across the state, deferred maintenance costs at public universities approach $3 billion, according to a 2-year-old UNC system report.

"I don't see how there's another solution aside from the bond issue," trustee John Ellison said. "It's going to be billions and billions of dollars, which may make it unrealistic."

Will taxpayers buy it?

Bond issue can be a good way to raise revenue, but the state's debt situation would have to be taken into consideration first, said Hannah Gage, chairwoman of the UNC system's Board of Governors. And voters would have to be convinced of the plan's merits, she said.

"I don't know what the appetite is right now with the public," she said. "They're still looking at their own finances and job situation and health care."

eric.ferreri@newsobserver.com or 919-932-2008

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