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Maintenance projects pressure lawmakers (UPDATE)

By Paul Snyder

The pace of construction in the University of Wisconsin System is creating a growing to-do list of maintenance projects and nowhere near enough money to get the work done.

“We need to start thinking about this long term,” said state Rep. Dean Kaufert, R-Neenah. “And if we’re saving money on other projects, we should think of a way to utilize that money.”

Four UW System projects this year drew lower-than-expected bids and a combined savings of almost $20 million. But the state Building Commission spent $17 million of the savings last week when it approved a renovation of Carlson Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Commission members Kaufert and state Sen. Ted Kanavas, R-Brookfield, supported the project but still voted against it to prompt a discussion on how best to use project savings.

“We had a $200 million maintenance budget for state agencies this year,” Kaufert said. “We could’ve increased that by 10 percent.”

But David Miller, UW System vice president of capital planning and budget, said 10 percent is a drop in the bucket for system maintenance, which includes such projects as plumbing, electrical, heating and structural work. The UW System netted $108.4 million of the state $200 million maintenance budget, but Miller said system requests add up to $450 million.

“And those are just the actual projects that are so pressing they can’t afford not to be done,” he said.

Miller estimated UW System maintenance needs easily top $1 billion.

The state maintenance budget, Miller said, never will match the need, but the system needs to keep spending on new projects. Some of those projects are replacements for buildings with maintenance issues, he said, but there is no inclination to shift money from new construction to fixing what’s there.

The system has a record $222.4 million worth of projects committed for the 2011-13 budget.

The dilemma of building new or performing maintenance work is constant, said Jeffrey Bartell, chairman of the Board of Regents’ Capital Planning and Budget Committee.

“One of the first questions we ask before deciding to build new is whether we can make do with what we have,” he said.

The system keeps building because it keeps attracting new students. There are 178,000 students in the system this semester, and the goal is to keep increasing the number.

That leads to more maintenance projects. But Miller said even if the state covers the $450 million of maintenance requests, the UW System does not have enough people to process and take care of all that work.

“What we need is flexibility in how maintenance funds are spent,” he said. “What we’d like is to be able to combine multiple types of work into a larger-scale project.”

Kaufert said he knows the maintenance budget always will leave some projects in the lurch. The solution, he said, might boil down to the most basic of money-management principles.

“Maybe we could try saving money, huh?” he said. “What a novel idea.”

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