"You can pay me now, or pay me later," the saying goes.
The microburst storm that caused extensive damage on the Kansas University campus earlier this month provided a solid example of how that philosophy applies to the state's responsibility to maintain university buildings.
The cost of repairing damage to KU buildings has been estimated at more than $6 million. Damage probably was worse, KU officials said last week, because the winds struck buildings whose roofs already were in serious need of repair. Because the state is self-insured, it will have to cover the loss on its own without help from an insurance company.
The state didn't pay for maintenance earlier, but it will pay for repairs now.
It's not that officials at the six state universities are unaware that they are way behind on meeting maintenance needs on their campuses, but finding money to meet those needs is another matter.
The Kansas Board of Regents proposed a plan this year to levy a combination of taxes to help with the maintenance backlog. The board's package included a 1-mill statewide property tax levy and a one-tenth-cent sales tax, both of which would end in 2016, and $150 million in bonds. Although the plan makes sense to the regents and many Kansans, it appears it will get nowhere in the current tax-averse session of the Kansas Legislature.
The state needs to take more responsibility for protecting its investment in the state-owned buildings on university campuses. Not to properly maintain those buildings is poor stewardship for state taxpayers. But, from a practical standpoint, universities probably also have to accept that, as they must do in so many areas these days, they must be prepared to take up the slack for the funding the state doesn't provide.
Many new buildings are constructed on campuses through funding generously provided by private donors. In most cases, however, those donations don't include funding for building maintenance. So, while the universities' physical plants are growing, maintenance funding simply isn't able to keep up.
It's unfortunate that state lawmakers aren't willing to provide a boost to university maintenance funds, but, rather than let buildings deteriorate, university officials may have to look at ways to compensate for the lack of state funds. That could include setting more maintenance money aside in their annual budgets or perhaps establishing a privately financed maintenance fund. The university also should consider a priority system for buildings and maintenance (i.e., $30 million for a football office/locker room vs. repairing current buildings). Private donors like to see their names on a building, but they also should appreciate the need to maintain that building for the future.
KU has one of the most beautiful campuses in the country, but it will only retain that beauty - and its functionality - if its buildings are properly maintained. The state needs to take more responsibility for that maintenance, but so do individual universities.