EDITORIAL: Taxpayers, students can’t afford college repairs

Yet another Nevada government entity reports having enormous maintenance needs that, somehow, some way, must be paid for very soon.

Where have we heard this before?

On Friday, the elected members of the Board of Regents were told the Nevada System of Higher Education has $1.5 billion worth of unfunded facility maintenance and improvement projects. At a minimum, the system must start spending $60 million annually on deferred maintenance to keep buildings from falling apart, four times its current budget.

The Review-Journal’s Sean Whaley reported UNLV’s share of the maintenance and upgrade backlog is $286 million. At UNR, the figure is a staggering $900 million. System-wide, about $300 million worth of the work is considered critical and must be completed over the next two years.

It’s doubtful the system has this many needs, critical or otherwise. Some of the upgrades qualify as wants, rather than needs. And thanks to wage requirements and red tape, government-sponsored construction projects always cost more than comparable private-sector jobs. However, for the sake of argument, let’s cut the system’s wish list in half. That’s still $750 million, an amount roughly equivalent to the system’s entire one-year operating budget.

That’s crazy money — crazy that it was allowed to run this high before any solution was seriously contemplated, crazy to think students and the public can be expected to cover even a fraction of that amount. The system’s annual maintenance shortfall is believable, however, because every other government entity in the state has been equally inept at planning for routine repairs and upkeep. The Clark County School District and the city of Las Vegas have been especially bad about short-changing maintenance to fund other programs, allowing buildings and equipment to fall into disrepair. What were our elected and appointed leaders thinking? That by putting off required work and spending the money elsewhere, the need for repairs and upkeep would simply disappear?

Pushing the bill into the future just makes it harder to pay. The same is true for the state’s unfunded pension obligations and the federal government’s massive entitlement promises.

The regents have few options for new money. The line for tax-increase requests for the 2015 legislative session is already forming. Chancellor Dan Klaich told regents that delaying new construction and shifting funding into deferred maintenance is one option, but the discussion kept swinging back to fees on students, who’ve already been tapped to cover a variety of projects and expenses. Considering they use the facilities that need funding, it’s a reasonable approach. However, as Mr. Klaich noted, the fees would have to be significant to dent the backlog. How many students could afford a $1,000 per semester repair fee? So much for keeping college affordable. Regent James Dean Leavitt suggested asking the Legislature — meaning the taxpayers — to match whatever revenue is generated by student fees.

We can already see where this is headed. What institution swallows three-fifths of the system’s funding wish list? UNR, a university that has been subsidized for decades by Southern Nevada taxpayers at the expense of UNLV and the College of Southern Nevada. The higher education system just adopted a new funding formula to end the regional inequity.We said it in this space Saturday, and at least a dozen times before: Clark County is done paying the bills of the rest of the higher education system. Done.

If regents assess another student fee, make them institution-specific. UNLV repair fees pay for UNLV projects.

As for UNR’s $900 million project list, there’s only way even a quarter of it becomes reality: fundraising. UNR President Marc Johnson began laying the groundwork for a significant capital campaign last year. The university, its alumni and the Reno area have to step up to make it successful.

Maintenance needs to be a priority not just for the higher eduation system, but for all Nevada governments. It’s not enough for regents and other elected stewards to figure out how to pay for repairs and renovations going forward. They need to put in place people and protocols that ensure the work gets done. We’re still waiting for state lawmakers to wall off K-12 maintenance budgets from more thievery, the way capital funds are protected from general fund raids.

Nevada taxpayers have spent many billions of dollars on government buildings and infrastructure, including many offices worthy of royalty. They can’t be allowed to fall apart. And if our elected officials refuse to improve their oversight — they’re the ones who approve the budgets, after all — voters should hold them accountable come Election Day.

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