Archive for Sunday, August 10, 2003

For want of a nail …

August 10, 2003

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Kansas lawmakers have failed in a basic duty to protect the state's investment in buildings.

Building maintenance is a pretty unglamorous item to spend money on, but a failure to invest in basic upkeep can have serious financial consequences.

The state of Kansas now is facing some of those consequences.

State lawmakers were told Thursday that buildings at the state's six universities need an estimated $672.4 million in repairs. The other shoe to drop was an estimated $90 million of repairs needed at the state's two major office buildings in Topeka, the Docking and Landon buildings. In fact, the situation at those two buildings was so dire that the state secretary of administration questioned whether it would be more cost-effective to tear them down.

How did the state get in this position? According to a report from the Kansas Board of Regents, the answer seems to come down to one word: neglect. The report indicates that the 760 buildings on state university campuses have a replacement value of $4.1 billion. Maintaining those buildings at a satisfactory level, the regents figure, should cost about $74 million a year. So how much does the state spend on that job? About $10 million a year.

That might be understandable in the last year or two, when budgets have been tight, but it clearly took longer than that for state buildings to reach their current state of disrepair. So five or six years ago when the state treasury was flush, state officials still were choosing to cut taxes rather than commit funds to protect the state's investment in government structures.

In the case of the state office buildings, Kansas lawmakers spent millions of dollars on other office buildings while neglecting maintenance on existing buildings. In 2001, for instance, the state opened the new $52 million Curtis State Office Building southeast of the capitol. Also during the administration of Gov. Bill Graves, the state paid $18.5 million for the Security Benefit building in a deal that involved former Secretary of State Jack Brier and raised questions about cronyism with Graves' former boss.

Such expenditures seem unconscionable in light of the delayed maintenance report.

It's possible to question whether the need is being exaggerated, but even if the need is half of the stated figures, it would be a crisis. Where the money will come from in the current tight financial situation is uncertain. It definitely will be necessary to triage the buildings and put money where it is most needed to keep buildings from crumbling to the point they are beyond repair.

This is basic stuff, folks. Taking care of buildings is part of taking care of the taxpayers' money, and state lawmakers appear to have failed miserably at the job.

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