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Little Money For University Construction, Repairs

By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida
By: Lilly Rockwell, The News Service of Florida

THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, March 25, 2011 --

Forget those ambitious plans to build that state-of-the-art biology building with plush offices, classrooms and labs. Actually, don’t even count on routine roof repairs to dozens of public university buildings.

This year, the State University System of Florida is facing such a large shortfall in state funds for construction and repairs that it is shifting priorities from planning new classrooms to paying only for emergency repairs.

The Legislature allocates money – in budget parlance it is called PECO (Public Education Capital Outlay) – to fund new construction and repairs to buildings and garages in the 11 schools in the State University System and the Florida College System each year. Some of that money is also steered toward public K-12 schools.

Money for PECO comes from a tax on the sale of utility services, which has been shrinking along with other tax revenue. That leaves schools fighting for a piece of a smaller pool of school construction and repair funds. According to preliminary projections, schools are bracing for what could be the biggest hit in 10 years.

The funding for PECO last year dropped 60 percent for all state universities from the previous year. Meanwhile, state universities continue to see their student enrollment grow on average about 2 to 3 percent a year.

This year, schools are expecting to receiving nothing to fund new construction and the pot of money for repairs is estimated at $120 million. That amount has to be split between K-12 schools and state universities and colleges.

That is a big drop-off from the $660 million the State University System alone received in fiscal year 2007-08.

This year, the State University System is hoping for $40 million for repairs out of PECO funds, and has asked for a total of $110 million, though system officials acknowledged it is very unlikely that wish will be granted.

To cope with a dramatic drop-off in school construction and repair money, the State University System voted on Thursday to press the Legislature to waive state law and allow universities more flexibility in reserving a portion of existing PECO funds used for repairing roofs or cracks in walls and use them for emergency repairs only.

“University CFOs are faced with a very, very limited (school construction and repairs) budget,” said Chris Kinsley, the director of finance and facilities for the State University System. “It’s just a bare minimum amount.”

In the past, funding for school construction and repairs has been level or growing, so it took the state universities by surprise when there was such a large drop-off in the last few years.

Frank Brogan, the Chancellor of the State University System Board of Governors, called it a “triage” situation. Kinsley said the state universities rely heavily on PECO funds and a grant program called Courtelis, which matches state funds with private donations, towards building new classrooms and laboratory facilities.

The state university system relies more heavily on PECO funds than K-12 schools because they don’t have the ability to issue bonds through local governments to pay for new buildings.

PECO funds primarily go toward classrooms, not dormitories or athletic buildings which can be funded through fees or other charges. The drop in PECO funds doesn’t just impact routine repair work.

Some universities that are mid-construction on new buildings will have to finish on a shoe-string budget. That means the University of South Florida’s Interdisciplinary Research building, which design plans show as a sleek, sharp-edged modern building, will likely have to be finished with the bare minimum – just walls and windows.


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