UNC Confronts Time of Austerity
Leave it to Erskine Bowles to come up with a practical idea.
The retiring president of the UNC system has advised the board of governors to concentrate on maintaining existing facilities until the economy turns around and money becomes available for new buildings.
Moore Countians will note with particular interest that support for Democrat Bowles’ position came from former Gov. Jim Holshouser, a Republican and a veteran UNC system board member who now lives and practices in Pinehurst.
“We’re all collectively in denial right now,” Holshouser said. “We need to get ourselves ready. Every time I see a request for a new program now, I get a little shiver.” Holshouser then commended UNC-Chapel Hill for its decision to defer law school construction projects.
The observations made by Bowles and Holshouser point to a major omission on the part of everyone, not just government officials. It is human to crave something new and shiny. Besides, no one erects a plaque bearing honorary names when state, county or city completes a maintenance job.
Fixing up old buildings may be an attractive option for some people up to such a challenge, but the average person has little inclination to shell out big bucks to replace a roof or faulty plumbing. Basic maintenance is not glamorous, but it is essential if you want to keep buildings in workable shape.
Outlook Grows Dimmer
At the Thursday meeting, Bowles told the UNC board of governors that the money is simply not there for new buildings. In fact, he called attention to more than $2 billion in long overdue repairs needed throughout the system — steam pipes, air conditioning, roofing and infrastructure.
Heightening the maintenance needs is the realization that buildings erected as part of a $2.5 billion bond issue approved by voters 10 years ago may already be needing repairs.
Designers of expansion projects often omit the cost of maintaining, repairing and staffing new buildings when making their plans. That’s left up to administrators who must justify the additional costs when they come begging to the legislature or local government groups closer to home.
Bowles said the university system needs $2.1 billion just to address basic repairs and renovation needs, many of which have been deferred because available money is being directed elsewhere. The state’s budget outlook grows dimmer and dimmer, with the shortfall now estimated at $3.5 billion.
Voice of Experience
State coffers are at lowest ebb since the Great Depression. In speaking realistically, Bowles acknowledged the sad truth that the legislature is unlikely to look favorably on budget increases in the next fiscal year. It’s time to fix up and wait.
Clustered on all university campuses are buildings with historic value, which must be preserved and continue to serve well the academic community. The state is equally responsible for providing basic care for newer buildings. A small hole left unplugged will just get bigger and require more costly repairs if not fixed promptly.
Bowles speaks from experience. The former White House chief of staff once ran the Small Business Administration and recently was tapped to co-chair the president’s fiscal commission.
He knows what he’s talking about, and so does Holshouser. We all would do well to listen to them, whether or not we like what they have to say.
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