California’s Public Colleges Still Face Mountains of Deferred Maintenance

For the first time in years, California’s public colleges have received good news from the state-budget process, with each of the three systems gaining a boost in support, thanks in part to the voter-approved tax measure known as Proposition 30. But some officials at California State University have already begun nervously asking for more money, not least because they—like their counterparts at the University of California and the California Community Colleges—still face billions of dollars in deferred maintenance.

The effects of California’s budget turmoil since the recession have been evident throughout the state’s higher-education system as officials have scrambled to balance their budgets with tuition increases, restricted class offerings, and mandatory furlough days for faculty and staff members. Even with the restored support in Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposed state budget, college officials say they must still deal with gaps in their operating budgets. Meanwhile, capital budgets have languished, and each system has amassed at least $1-billion in maintenance backlogs. Some sources speculate that the totals may be much larger.

The Cal State system is the only one so far to publicly ask for more state funds. At a Board of Trustees meeting last month, university officials said they would need $250-million more in state support to close a gap in their operating budget for the coming year. But meeting that need is highly unlikely, Governor Brown, a Democrat, told the trustees. Requests for more money would make the budget difficult to pass.

Cal State is also at odds with Mr. Brown over state support for capital projects. Over the last five years, the system has absorbed significant cuts in state funds, making it difficult to deal with a $1.7-billion maintenance backlog. Officials have made 38 projects priorities for the next fiscal year, for a total cost of about $520-million, but they have secured only $3.6-million from the state. That money will finance four of the projects, primarily for new equipment; none of money will go to new construction or infrastructure repairs.

Elvyra F. San Juan, Cal State’s assistant vice chancellor for capital planning, design, and construction, said that despite the 23-campus system’s size, it has historically received little state support for capital projects, even though many of its buildings are more than 35 years old.

In the 1994-95 fiscal year, for example, Ms. San Juan said the system received $50-million from the state. Since 2008 no extra money has been allocated to handle the mounting backlog. Ms. San Juan said the system still planned to ask the state for more money before the budget is passed in the coming months.

When building maintenance is neglected, it not only contributes to a backlog of costs, but it also can cause other services to fail, putting stress on future budgets. Ms. San Juan said the system may need to pay for such repairs out of its support budget.

Infrastructure systems have already failed on many Cal State campuses. At Fresno, for example, Ms. San Juan said switch-gear failures in one building last month caused a 72-hour shutdown, during which time students could not attend classes.

The state’s other two systems have also seen mounting maintenance costs.

The University of California has a total of $1.1-billion in deferred maintenance, according to Patrick J. Lenz, its vice president for budget and capital resources. The system has publicly touted a $426-million backlog, but that number reflects only high-priority projects.

But the UC system does not have any new projects financed in the governor’s proposed budget. In the meantime, officials have been looking at other options to pay for critical capital needs, such as retrofitting aging facilities systemwide and accommodating growth on the Los Angeles, Merced, Santa Barbara, and San Diego campuses, among others.

Mr. Lenz said UC officials were in talks with the governor’s office and state legislators, in hopes of receiving some money from Proposition 39, a tax measure, approved in November, that sets aside nearly $600-million for energy retrofits.

The system has a number of facilities in which retrofitting would have a “dramatic impact” in reducing greenhouse-gas emissions, Mr. Lenz said.

“We’re cautiously optimistic,” he said. “We are very appreciative of what the government has started, and we are very realistic about other needs in the state that did not get funding, or that got cuts.”

Other than schools, colleges, and universities, health spending is the only area in the proposed budget that would receive additional funds next year.

“We need to be a bit respectful and cautious in balancing the other needs the Legislature is concerned about,” Mr. Lenz said.

At the California Community Colleges, the need for money to deal with maintenance backlogs has increased sharply. In 2008 the system’s backlog was $721-million. Now it is more than $1-billion, officials said, though they could not give an exact number.

Dan Troy, the system’s vice chancellor for finance, said 2008 was the last year the community colleges received state dollars for deferred maintenance. The system has nearly 5,200 buildings, and two out of three are at least 25 years old and in need of renovation to make sure they are safe.

“In these tight fiscal circumstances, it gets harder to satisfy all your needs,” Mr. Troy said. “When we don’t fund those services, that could lead to a lot of problems.”

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