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Why an asset protection policy should be mandatory

For the past couple of days, I’ve been talking about the sewage spill on the campus of Washtenaw Community College. Uncontained human waste flowing freely and contaminating the rainwater management system on campus is not acceptable. But then again, neither are bricks falling off the buildings, mold growing in faculty offices, rainwater leaking into the buildings, heating systems that aged out decades ago and heaving walkways. But in the absence of an asset protection policy, WCC has experienced all of those.

On one hand, you can look at this as a maintenance issue. The Washtenaw County taxpayers have voluntarily provided WCC with more than $535M in funding in the past 10 years, so there is literally no reason the maintenance can’t be done. The taxpayers have provided the means to address WCC’s maintenance needs.

More importantly, it’s a liability issue. With the stroke of a pen, the WCC Trustees could transfer this liability to the executive they’re paying more than $400,000 per year in salary, bonuses and incentives, and other compensation. Many community colleges have done just that. At these schools, taking care of the college assets (including all the buildings) is a condition of the president’s employment. No mold, no roof leaks, no heaving sidewalks or falling bricks. And no raw sewage in the retention ponds.

Why? Because the Trustees have given the president a pretty good incentive to make sure that none of that stuff happens. They’ve already identified the person they’re going to hold responsible for whatever goes wrong.

Without Asset Protection Policy, Trustees Become Liable

For whatever reason, the WCC Trustees have decided to retain for themselves the responsibility for WCC’s sewage spills, falling bricks, heaving sidewalks, leaking roofs, mold, deflection cracks, shitty construction, and ancient air handlers that are loaded with who knows what. It’s a great deal for the President, who has all the necessary authority to prioritize maintenance, but cannot be held accountable for failing to do it.

If you think this isn’t a serious issue, think again. Nationally, colleges and universities have a maintenance backlog that currently exceeds $100B. In South Carolina, all of the state universities deal with chronic mold problems in their campus buildings. That’s due – in no small part – to the fact that South Carolina is a perennially soggy state. Most universities there underwent a huge building boom in the 1960’s, and those poorly designed, poorly constructed buildings are at the end of their useful lives. And they’re moldy. As in black-mold-that-will-kill-you moldy. South Carolina university students are chronically sick, and some of them have died from mysterious respiratory illnesses that the university executives don’t really want to talk about.

Undone maintenance is inherently dangerous

Time is unforgiving to all of us, including buildings. Campus buildings require constant, rigorous (and expensive) maintenance. No excuses. Failing to perform maintenance puts people’s health in danger. That’s why it’s a liability issue. When air handling systems become moldy, they distribute the mold throughout the building, where it can grow indiscriminately – or it can lay dormant until the right conditions appear. Air handlers can also harbor Legionella bacteria, which kills people.

When plumbing drains deteriorate, they release Legionella, Campylobacter Jejuni, E.coli, Salmonella, and Staph bacteria into areas that are supposed to be clean and safe for human occupancy.

The easiest, least expensive way to remedy these problems is to prevent them from ever happening. It’s a lot more expensive to remediate mold, sewage leaks, and other disasters than it is to perform routine, timely maintenance. But apparently, this matters only to the people who provide the money.

Performing maintenance should not be a question. Nor should it be an option. Nothing should be more important than the health and safety of the people who occupy campus buildings. When the Trustees approve the indiscriminate hiring of a dozen Vice Presidents, they prioritize bureaucracy over the health and safety of the community. They also open the taxpayers to costly liability actions. An Asset Protection Policy would ensure that those who create exceptional financial and legal risk for the taxpayers will suffer exceptional personal and professional consequences for doing so.

Photo Credit: atle|f , via Flickr