State colleges might not get to use new facilities

State funded construction, but there may not be money for operation

Staff WritersJune 18, 2010 

— At UNC-Chapel Hill, workers are putting the final touches on a 160,000-square-foot monument to scientific exploration.

The $92 million New Venable Hall building will offer Carolina scientists expanded, high-tech classrooms, offices and labs.

That's assuming the state can afford to open it. The $92 million price tag doesn't pay the electric bill or take care of maintenance.

According to university records, the science building is one of 17 new state university facilities across North Carolina that may not open as expected this year or next if the state can't provide the money to operate them.

"We'll either have to mothball these new science buildings or we'll have to pull the money out of the academic side," UNC System President Erskine Bowles told reporters last week. "It's crazy not to give us the funds to operate them."

The system has asked for about $25 million, a small part of what's expected to be a $19 billion state budget, but with the state facing an $800 million revenue shortfall, something has to give. The state House's budget proposal included about $12 million for operating the new buildings; the Senate's didn't include any money for it.

Sen. Richard Stevens, a Cary Republican involved in budget negotiations, said he anticipates at least some will be included. "We should have put that money in," Stevens said.

In addition to the relatively small fund to open new buildings, UNC officials are trying to get budget negotiators to roll back other cuts proposed in the House budget, which protected K-12 education at the expense of the UNC System.

To ensure they get money to open the buildings, university officials are stressing the potential economic benefits they could produce.

Of the 17 new facilities, Bowles has cited a classroom building at UNC-Greensboro, a bioinformatics building at UNC-Charlotte, an engineering complex at N.C. State University, a family medicine building at East Carolina University and a pharmacy building at Elizabeth City State University.

"Those are the things that will create jobs in the future," Bowles said.

The university system gets $2.5 billion from the state.

But officials say they would struggle to absorb the operating costs of the new buildings. In recent years, the system has been cut by $575 million, and in the last year alone administrative spending was slashed by 23 percent. Bowles said additional cuts would have to come from classroom spending. The system has recently opened - or expects to open soon - 38 buildings by finding money from other sources, a further drain on the system's resources.

The cost to classes

"With all these cuts it's going to mean fewer professors on campus because we'll have to fire a lot of people," Bowles said. "And secondly, it's going to lead to fewer classes, and classes will have more people in them, so it's going to take longer to graduate, which will cost the state more money."

In Chapel Hill, officials say they need more than $2.5 million in the next year to operate the massive new science building.

"It's like an unseen budget cut," said Carolyn Elfland, UNC-CH's associate vice chancellor for campus services. "We open the building and absorb the utility bill. We have to cut somewhere else to absorb it. If you get a big building, and there's no money, it's pretty hard."

Two buildings, $3M

N.C. State University has several buildings on the list, the largest of them on Centennial Campus for the College of Engineering and a new animal hospital at the veterinary college.

Those two projects alone come to close to half a million square feet of floor space and will require about $3 million for maintenance and utilities annually, said Kevin MacNaughton, the associate vice chancellor for facilities.

The engineering building is expected to be open for the fall semester. The animal hospital will open early next year, MacNaughton said.

The House and Senate are expected to continue negotiations next week. or 919-829-4521

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