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UW System’s choice: New or improved

By Paul Snyder

Energy efficiency is a threatened ideal as bare-bones UW System school budgets force a face-off between building upgrades and new construction.

“It most definitely is a problem, and it’s a gut-wrenching one,” said Terry Classen, director of facilities management at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. “You have people that work in buildings that need their HVAC systems renewed, and, at the planning level, you’ve got to debate if that’s worth putting ahead of building a new science building.”

It’s a decision UW-Eau Claire planners, still lacking consensus, will have to make by the end of the month as they prioritize projects for the next budget cycle, Classen said. At least one campus building needs a new HVAC system estimated at nearly $5 million, but campus planners also want to build a new science building.

“If you want to stay viable as a university,” Classen said, “there’s a strong case to make for a new science building.”

The balance between new and improved is becoming more difficult to maintain, particularly in light of a UW System report showing costs are rising for campus energy-efficiency upgrades.

“We’ve harvested the low-hanging fruit,” said UW System spokesman David Giroux. “The projects are becoming more and more expensive.”

That will hit home Wednesday when the state Building Commission reviews a request to use state energy-efficiency money for nearly $10.3 million in upgrades in University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee buildings.

The state budgeted $50 million in the 2009-11 budget for state agency energy-efficiency projects. That is an increase from the $30 million in the 2007-09 budget. The UW System claimed almost $20 million from that budget.

“It’s not dire,” said David Miller, UW System vice president of capital planning and budget. “I think we’ll still be able to bring some more projects forward.”

And when the money runs out, Miller said, university leaders will have to prioritize.

“If it weren’t for this fund, we’d have to use (general state budget spending),” he said. “That money is much more scarce, for one, but it’s also the money we use for new academic classroom space.”

The state Building Commission likely will not hand over a blank check, either.

“If the opportunity comes up to do an energy-efficient project with general spending, then I would imagine something else would have to give,” said state Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah. “They’re going to have to determine priorities and see what can wait.”

Often, Classen said, there is little difference between a low priority and a dead project.

“Theoretically, there should be this cycle where you can push a project off a couple years and still get it in for consideration,” he said. “But it doesn’t work like that. At a certain point you start to think, ‘I’m never going to see this in my lifetime.’”

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