Washtenaw Community College has a $20M deferred maintenance problem. Campus buildings have developed leaks, mold growth, falling bricks and heaving sidewalks, heating and cooling failures, buckling floors, crumbling staircases, and a host of other issues. The parking lots, entryways, walkways, sewers, drains and loading docks also need major repairs. WCC’s maintenance budget should have addressed these things, but didn’t. And unless the College is specifically tucking money away for the parking garage, that will soon be in trouble, too.
Deferred maintenance on college campuses isn’t a new problem. The State of California’s public higher education system estimates that it needs nearly $50B to repair buildings on its campuses. Colleges and universities all over the United States are facing a deferred maintenance crisis. In part, the problem stems from the high-use nature of college facilities. In WCC’s case, the campus typically operates from 7:30 AM to 10:00 PM during the week. It also hosts classes and special events on the weekends. The problem also stems from routinely using building maintenance money to pay for other things.
The community deserves better management of this resource
That may explain – but doesn’t excuse – the build-up of deferred maintenance. It also highlights the pressing need for the Board of Trustees to permanently prioritize building maintenance and upkeep.
WCC students, the taxpayers of Washtenaw County, the State of Michigan and the federal government have invested literally billions of dollars into WCC in its 54-year history. Using the College’s operating millages, the bond authorizations, federal grants, state appropriations and tuition revenues, we’ve built an extraordinary educational resource. And it should remain available for generations to come.
Washtenaw County taxpayers have always generously funded WCC. Sadly, our Board of Trustees has chosen to prioritize the spending requests of the administration over the protection of community assets. The result is $20M in deferred maintenance expenses with more sure to follow.
Asset protection policies prioritize administrative spending
Some community college boards have addressed this by adopting an Asset Protection requirement. This clause requires the chief executive to maintain the College’s assets as a condition of employment. Failure to do so can result in the termination of the President.
Given our extensive investment in WCC, it is not too much to ask that the Trustees insist that the Chief Executive Officer maintain the facilities adequately and limit our liability. Right now, we have Trustees who legally can – but do not – exercise authentic oversight over their hired executive. They place no significant restrictions on administrative spending. As a result, money that should be used for building maintenance gets diverted to executive hiring and no-bid contracts. We have a $20M deferred maintenance bill and a growing liability for the deteriorating condition of the facilities on campus.
Aside from demanding that the College administration prioritize the protection of our communal investment for future students, the Trustees must also demand the responsible use of bond money that the voters have authorized.
In 1996, the voters authorized the college to borrow nearly $40M. The State of Michigan provides matching capital for the construction, renovation, expansion and rehabilitation of qualifying academic buildings. In other words, WCC has the opportunity to minimize the use of borrowed money for some buildings on campus. The bonds financed the construction or rehabilitation of a number of buildings.
Wasted bonds, wasted opportunities, wasted taxpayer money
It is absolutely outrageous that the Board of Trustees allowed the previous president to use the remaining bond authorizations to build the Health and Fitness Center. The HFC did not qualify for matching funds from the State because it is not an academic building. The taxpayers of Washtenaw County bore the full cost of this building, and are still paying for this shameful waste of resources.
The HFC – which the administration promised would pay for itself – is the classic boondoggle. The building has not yet – and never will – pay for itself. It is saddled with debt. The HFC was designed to serve 6,000 users. To stay ahead of the debt payments, the College must oversubscribe the facility by 1,000 – 2,000 users, which increases the wear on the facilities and shortens its useful life. This disastrous oversubscription strategy drives the maintenance costs through the roof, and ensures that WCC will never get ahead of this facility’s enormous operational and maintenance expenses.
The Board of Trustees must always place the protection of the College’s assets ahead of the President’s shopping list. They must carefully consider any new construction requests and demand that the administration set aside sufficient funds for each building’s maintenance in every budget cycle. WCC must not accumulate millions of dollars in ignored maintenance projects so the Administration can spend money on transient priorities. The Trustees must also refrain from taking on debts and expenses that don’t advance WCC’s primary educational mission.
Photo Credit: Rex Roof , via Flickr.com