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One Step at a Time: How to Escape the Deferred-Maintenance Spiral

7/1/2013

 

 

​Deferred maintenance can turn into a vicious cycle: In a declining or stagnant economy, deep budget cuts and tough choices can push maintenance problems off the short list of necessities that get funded. Left unaddressed, such problems can snowball into major issues that scare off prospective students and potential donors, squeezing budgets even tighter.

California’s public institutions have endured a particularly virulent cycle of deferred maintenance. But even in such times, said California State University, East Bay President Leroy M. Morishita in this exclusive Q&A, there are practical strategies that can pull a whole campus together to help address deferred maintenance.

 
What’s your campus’s deferred-maintenance situation?

We do have a backlog that we are very concerned about and that needs to be addressed. The California State University (CSU) system has $1.7 billion of deferred maintenance, and our campus has more than $100 million of deferred maintenance. For the system, that backlog of $1.7 billion works out to be about $38.50 per gross square foot across the 23 campuses. But for our campus, we’re about double the system-wide average: Our square-foot backlog is about $75 per square foot.

How did this maintenance backlog get created?

Our campus is about 60 years old. Other CSU campuses that are older had building replacements or a lot of work done years before repairs became necessary on our campus. We hit that period when we had to start to do some things—our buildings were in need—and I think that’s when the bottom started to fall out for the state. As a result, we couldn’t get the dollars to make some of those repairs. I think that’s why our backlog has increased to its current level.

How do you prioritize among all your urgent needs?

Every year, the CSU system has us put together a list of our critical needs. We really look closely at life-safety issues, health- and safety-code issues, and things that need to be structurally corrected. We put together a list, which obviously can’t be completely taken care of in one year, and prioritize according to the most critical needs and what we have to do. Six years ago, 2007, is when the state last passed a bond for us that we were able to utilize toward these needs.

This is where CSU and other schools across the country have a problem: Because of the downturn in the economy, we haven’t been able to get the support dollars we need to correct a lot of our maintenance issues. It’s hard—we know there are many needs out there all across the campus. We would love to do a classroom renovation project for all of our classrooms, because they’re in desperate need of technology upgrades. But it’s difficult to do that.

Tell us about the toughest challenge you’ve overcome in tackling deferred maintenance.

The biggest issue is that the state does not like to take down buildings. They seem to think that even buildings that might have reached the end of their usable lifespans should be there forever.

What are some of the ways you’re managing to make progress on deferred maintenance despite the economy?

We’re going to be imploding a building later this summer because of seismic issues and putting up another building. It is going to be LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver-equivalent, if not higher. That will give us some savings, and the way that we try to parlay these kinds of utility savings or water savings is not to put them into the general operating fund, but instead to put them back into facilities maintenance.

That is what we’ve also done with a couple of other projects. We have generated one megawatt of electricity with the solar panels on five of our buildings. We also did a project jointly funded with the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. They built a fuel cell generating electricity that goes off into the grid. We don’t get any benefit from the electricity, but we use the waste heat from the fuel cell to heat some of our buildings and our pool. We’ve kept those savings and put them into our facilities maintenance area so that we can continue to chip away at deferred maintenance and keep up with our scheduled maintenance.

There has to be pressure on you to keep deferring—to keep pushing off the maintenance. How do you keep on target?

I think we’re all at such a critical point in time that it’s easy to do that, in one way: Our faculty and staff see it in our buildings. They see that if there are leaks in the roof, for example, further damage can be caused if we don’t address the issue. We have not actually encountered any arguments. People know that we’re not misusing the funds—that they’re actually going into much-needed repairs. The amount we’ve set aside is fairly minimal; I think the people here on campus know that and only wish we could spend more money doing repairs.

How do you establish that kind of trust?

When I got here, we toured the campus, and we fixed the most visible problems so that people saw that we cared and wanted to improve things. I walked through one building where the safety strips on the stairwells were peeling up and were a hazard. So I had people make sure they repaired them, along with similar kinds of things—little things you take care of for health and safety reasons. People notice and see that you’re responding to problems that are visible to them and that they might have reported. I think that’s one way you are able to build up credibility. It isn’t just about talking: You’ve got to perform, and you’ve got to respond to the needs that people express.

If people start to see the changes, then people talk about issues that are arising within their buildings, and you can start to address some of those. Hopefully you can come up with a schedule, so you can say, “We’re going to address this issue in this year,” or, “We don’t have enough funds to take care of your problem this year, but maybe next year.” I think that lends some credence and some credibility that you are going to take care of the issues that people are experiencing.

How do you keep on top of maintenance issues so they don’t become deferred-maintenance issues?

We’ve put together a system where people can call in and report problems. We’re working on a feature allowing people to put in a work order on a project or call an emergency phone number to report a problem, like an elevator not working, or a leak. For a long time, if people didn’t tell us, we didn’t know about the problems. They just thought that nobody was going to take care of it. So we really want people to report the problems to us so that we can take care of them as soon as we can.

How do you effectively communicate to faculty that you’re addressing their needs too?

I think it’s about being clear with the college deans, in particular, so that they can communicate to their people that we come up with this prioritized list based on various factors such as life, safety, and health issues—structural things that really have to be done and that take precedence. Americans with Disabilities Act issues are at the top of the list too. Those are very, very important for us to take care of. It communicates a very important message to the campus.

Basically, if you give people information, they might disagree with the approach you’ve taken, but they can’t disagree that you’ve laid out a rationale for your choices. I’ve found that the more you communicate with people and the more you give the rationale and reasons behind the decisions you’ve made, the more people are able to garner some understanding and hopefully, acceptance. It is a difficult thing when they’re looking at a building and saying, “Hey, I’ve got the major problems here, and you’re not dealing with them.” Communicating, as best you can, all that you’re trying to do—how you set priorities, and on what basis—goes a long way toward lending credibility.

 

Questions and answers were edited by ACE staff for clarity and concision.
 
 


 

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