University bonding requests draw disagreement

Capital funding requests by the University of Minnesota have some state lawmakers split on what projects are really necessary.

by Ryan Faircloth

With a growing list of campus buildings in need of repair, University of Minnesota officials and state legislators are clashing over which projects require state funding.

Since 2012, the University has requested $888.2 million for new buildings and repairs from the state’s Higher Education Asset Preservation and Renovation (HEAPR) fund. Of those requests, the Minnesota State Legislature has granted $209.9 million.

Over the last five legislative sessions, none of the University’s bonding requests have been entirely fulfilled. No funding was awarded in 2013 and 2016 because of disagreements between legislators.

The University’s Board of Regents reviewed a preliminary 2017 capital request in September — totaling about $245 million — which is almost identical to last year’s request.

But the new version also includes $4 million added for collections and contemporary learning as well as cost increases on the previous year’s projects.

Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, said disconnect in funding comes from a lack of communication by the University, adding that their requests “come across as wants, not needs.”

“Since they are unable to distinguish between a need and a want, the Legislature does it for them,” he said.

Another source of confusion, Pelowski said, is inconsistency in the University’s requests.

“What was a number one priority in a previous session and they didn’t get it, suddenly it slips off the list completely or slips down the list in the next session, and you scratch your head,” he said.

But Regent Thomas Devine disagreed and said regents try to keep their requests concise.

“We know that we’re not going to get everything that we want on the list, but [what] we’re also doing is giving them parameters of what else we would do,” he said.

Devine said some of the fluctuations in yearly requests come from not knowing how much the legislature plans to spend in bonding.

According to a 2016 Facilities, Planning and Operations Committee report, the Twin Cities campus is projected to need roughly $3.3 billion to sustain campus buildings and infrastructure over the next 10 years.

Because of accumulative shorting of state funding requests, Devine said it will take a while to catch up on maintenance and repairs.

“I don’t think the average person walking down the street in Minnesota … believes that we’re not going to put any more money into any of our state higher education buildings. I don’t think that’s the eventuality,” he said.

To circumvent some of the costs, he said the University tries to assess and tear down buildings deemed too old to maintain.

Sen. Terri Bonoff, DFL-Minnetonka, chair of the Senate’s Higher Education and Workforce Development Committee, said she thinks the University has been honest about their requested needs.

“The University has many unmet capital needs, and … the state has not done an adequate job of maintaining infrastructure and partnering with the University in that way,” she said.

Michael Berthelsen, interim vice president for University Services, said he also thinks the University’s requests are need-based.

“The University asks for what it thinks it needs, so that means there is unmet need,” he said.

Berthelsen added that some University buildings — such as St. Paul campus research labs — are “falling apart.”

“We know that there is more need than we have resources,” he said.

Nevertheless, Pelowski said he thinks the University prioritizes constructing new buildings over maintaining old ones.

“We’re tired of having the U say, ‘I need these new buildings first and then, I want all of this for higher education asset and preservation,’” he said.

Pelowski said he thinks new projects are pushed more by University administrators so they can put it on their resumes, adding that maintaining old buildings isn’t as glamorous.

“You don’t get a shovel.You don’t get a picture. You don’t get a press release for doing it,” he said.

As for overcoming the cost deficit from deferred maintenance, Bonoff said she thinks some of the responsibility lies with the University.

“They have to be good stewards,” she said. “One way or another, we all have an obligation to take care of infrastructure.”

Berthelsen said while they do need more funding from the legislature, the University does have other options to aid accumulative maintenance costs.

He said the University has its own fund for building repairs and maintenance, and it could also issue debt for itself if needed.

Still, Devine said he’s optimistic more state funding will help patch some of the costs.

“The hope is … that we get a couple of years where we get, say, a $100 million year, and you’re taking 25 percent of the stuff off the list in one given bonding session,” he said.

If Democrats gain complete control of the Legislature in November, Sen. Richard Cohen, DFL-St. Paul, said they’d significantly increase HEAPR funding for the University.

But with no funding coming out of this year’s session, Devine said he’s still hoping for a special legislative session before January.

“It’s not an exact science but rather it’s the art of balancing out what the state is going to spend, and what are they going to do with their surpluses,” he said.