Facing building decay, admins look to state

At least 37 buildings on the Twin Cities campus classified as in critical need of updates.

Blair Emerson

Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a three-part series examining the University of Minnesota’s efforts to garner state funds for building maintenance.

 

Inside Burton Hall, sunlight shines through a stained-glass skylight, and marble carvings on the walls bespeak a history filled with countless students roaming the corridors.

However, the East Bank building is just one of at least 37 facilities on the Twin Cities campus that University of Minnesota officials say is in critical need of repairs this year.

University leaders say increased state funding is necessary to preserve these historic structures, but some legislators say practicality and fairness sometimes stand in the way of fulfilling those requests.

The University requests state aid to maintain its buildings, and part of that request is met through Higher Education Asset Preservation and Renovation funding. In recent years, the institution’s requests for HEAPR funds have been significantly higher than what it receives. This year, University leaders are trying out a new strategy to patch the gap in state support.

University President Eric Kaler’s proposed approach to the HEAPR request asks the legislature to invest an additional $5 million in the school’s operating budget as a source of revenue for facility repairs and renovations for each of the next two years. In return, the University would lower its HEAPR request by the same amount each year.

Through this tactic, University leaders say they hope to start a conversation with lawmakers on the importance of HEAPR funds in higher education.

“I don’t think any of us are satisfied with the progress that we’re making on maintenance and repair,” said Regent Clyde Allen. “That’s why we are looking at a different strategy right now.”

Allen also said school leaders hope that because the University is asking for a smaller HEAPR request, it will receive a larger percentage of its request than in past years.

But some legislators say scarce resources and the political process often make it difficult to meet the University’s wishes.

Rep. Alice Hausman, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the House capital investment committee, said passing large bonding bills — which HEAPR funding depends on — has been difficult in the past.

Some lawmakers hesitate to provide HEAPR funds, she said, because sectors outside of higher education also require state support.

“Some people worry we have overbuilt higher education in the state,” she said. ‘Have we built too many buildings? How can we more efficiently use the buildings we have?

Hausman said she must consider the entire state when voting on funding allocations and be careful to not overspend on the University.

Still, she said some University facilities do seem to need repairs, recalling an event last academic year when state legislators visited some of the school’s buildings included in the University’s funding request.

“I can remember being in Tate [Laboratory of Physics],” she said. “There are some facilities that are horrible.”

The Board of Regents’ Facilities and Operations Committee reviewed a report in September that highlighted the current conditions of most University facilities. Nearly one-sixth of the buildings on the Twin Cities campus are in critical condition, according to the report.

While these buildings are structurally sound, their financial needs are ramping up each year, said Mike Berthelsen, associate vice president of Facilities
Management.

“The size of the need continues to grow,” he said.

While past HEAPR requests have been “sporadic,” the aging of facilities is predictable, Berthelsen said.

Many of the buildings don’t need to be replaced but require additional funding to renew their current conditions, Berthelsen said.

“It’s like a car,” he said. “At some point you need to start replacing some components.”