Last June, Kansas University Chancellor Robert Hemenway stood in front of the Kansas Board of Regents with a piece of corroded pipe in his hand.
The pipe, he said, was the perfect example of why the state needs to spend more money taking care of its university buildings.
It had burst recently, spewing water throughout Murphy Hall at the KU Medical Center and causing an estimated $1 million in damage. With more upkeep money, KU could have replaced the pipe before it burst -- and spent the subsequent repair money on other maintenance or educational needs.
A recent audit completed by the regents showed the six state universities need $584.5 million to take care of a backlog of maintenance and repairs. KU's share is $168.5 million in Lawrence and $68.8 million at the Medical Center.
The needed repairs run the gamut and include electrical, plumbing, ventilation and other issues.
Everyone, it seems, agrees that universities need to take care of their buildings. Legislators have seemed sympathetic and even took care of some of the problems in the $160 million "crumbling classrooms" initiative, a five-year plan that started in 1996. "Crumbling classrooms" might have stopped the bleeding in some areas of the campuses, but the initiative didn't begin to address all of the problems.
Higher education officials have complained about a lack of maintenance funds for more than a decade, with a renewed push the last three or four years. Despite the frequent discussions recently, regents haven't had either the courage or the vision to come forward with a formal plan for dealing with the issue.
The budget Gov. Kathleen Sebelius revealed Tuesday makes no recommendations for deferred maintenance. As it stands, the regents system would continue to receive about $10 million a year from the educational building fund, which raises money through state property taxes.
Two ideas have been floated for the problem -- increasing the educational building fund mill levy or issuing bonds to deal with the issue over time.
Both seem like logical solutions, and there may be other good solutions out there. The regents need to decide which solution they support and pursue it before the issue gets ignored for another year.
With the Legislature facing a platter of contentious issues and the prospect of pumping large sums of money into the state's K-12 schools, some say this year may not be the best time to seek approval of a major repair bill for state buildings.
But the Legislature faces tough funding decisions every year. Those who don't want to address the problem could probably find an excuse every session not to approve a funding package. There's no doubt the $584.5 million in repairs will take time to address. Nobody's expecting it to be paid for in one year.
But the problem will only get worse with time. Not maintaining buildings that have been paid for with taxpayer dollars or generous donations represents poor stewardship by the state.
Every second that regents and the Legislature wait, the maintenance tab is growing. It's time to put a solid proposal on the table to take care of the problem, before more pipes burst and the costs escalate even more.