UNC students could face a new fee to pay for building repairs

The historic Old Well and South Building at UNC-Chapel Hill, where officials want to charge students a new fee to help with campus building repairs.
The historic Old Well and South Building at UNC-Chapel Hill, where officials want to charge students a new fee to help with campus building repairs.

Frustrated with a growing backlog of building maintenance needs, UNC-Chapel Hill officials want to turn from the state to a new source of revenue: students.

On Thursday, the campus Board of Trustees approved a proposal to charge each student $65.39 starting next year to finance debt that would help tackle repairs in classrooms, labs and other buildings on campus. The new Facilities Maintenance Debt Service Fee would yield nearly $1.8 million annually to finance $23 million in debt.

The university is proposing reducing some other student fees in order to create the new one. The $65.39 amount would keep required student fee increases within a 3 percent limit mandated by the legislature.

The proposal next goes to the UNC system’s Board of Governors, which will consider tuition and fees at the state’s public universities early next year.

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A student fee for regular maintenance would be unprecedented, and it comes at a time when political and UNC system leaders have begun to apply the brakes to rising costs for North Carolina families. Tuition has been virtually flat for in-state students in the past two years, and the legislature enacted fixed tuition, which guarantees that tuition won’t increase for a student who is continuously enrolled for four years.

For next year, UNC-Chapel Hill has proposed a 3 percent tuition increase, but only for out-of-state students and graduate students.

This year, tuition and fees are $8,986 annually for new in-state students and $35,169 for new out-of-state students at the Chapel Hill campus. That does not include room, board, books and other expenses. The total cost of attendance is estimated at $23,700 for North Carolina residents and $50,600 for out-of-state students.

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UNC-Chapel Hill officials say regular repair funding from the legislature isn’t making a dent in the growing cost of fixing campus buildings. In the past decade, the state’s repair and renovation allocations for the university have ranged from nothing in 2010, during the recession, to $12 million in 2016, according to a presentation Wednesday.

The backlog of maintenance on the Chapel Hill campus has reached $850 million, according to the university’s most current estimate. Three years ago, a similar presentation said the backlog was $656 million, with an annual inflation cost of $33 million.

“You get to a point when old buildings are getting pretty old, so we’re trying to deal with that,” Chancellor Carol Folt said. “We can’t rely fully on the state. There are a lot of costs, they have a lot of old buildings themselves. So I think this is something you’re going to see the whole state talking about — how are we going to start upgrading our infrastructure?”

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The university has been dedicating some federal money associated with grants to building projects. In some cases, private donations have been used for renovations, but trustees said more is necessary to take care of deteriorating facilities.

“We need to start doing these repairs and renovations around here for the safety of faculty, for the safety of students,” said Chuck Duckett, the vice chairman of the board, adding, “This is deeply important.”

Student Body President Savannah Putnam said she thought the way the fee came up was “problematic.” As someone who studies in neglected buildings, she said she sees the need for an infusion of money, but she’d like to see the board also pursue other avenues for funding.

Trustee Dwight Stone said the student fee is only part of the ultimate solution. “There are lots of avenues that we’re looking at. This is only one piece of it,” he said.

For years, the major emphasis has been on new construction at the state’s universities, instead of rehabilitation of older facilities. Voters have approved two large bond issues for the UNC system and community colleges, largely focused on new buildings: $3.1 billion in 2000 and $2 billion in 2016, of which about two-thirds was targeted to state campuses.

UNC-Chapel Hill received $515 million in the 2000 bond, and about $200 million of that was spent on renovation. In 2016, the campus received money for a new medical school building.

Jane Stancill: 919-829-4559; @janestancill

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