FRANKFORT — While taking their turns facing a legislative budget panel, university presidents have had to say publicly which they'd rather have: money to construct buildings or funds to operate ones about to open.
The clear message is that they're unlikely to get both."With this current budget climate, I don't see that there will be enough money," said Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, who is chairman of the House panel on the postsecondary education budget.
Lawmakers will decide in the coming weeks whether to fund the $37 million over two years in utility bills for university buildings set to open or make debt payments on up to $583.8 million in new projects on the campuses — or in the worst case scenario, neither.
Simpson pressed three university presidents at a hearing last month on the issue, and all three struggled to answer.
Never miss a local story.
"That's a tough question, Mr. Chairman," said James Votruba, Northern Kentucky University's president. He said the organization that oversees college nursing programs has told NKU it has "severe problems" with its nursing building and needs a new one. NKU is seeking to build a $92.5 million "health innovation" building.
On the other hand, the General Assembly decided not to fund maintenance and operations for new buildings in 2008 for the first time, shifting that burden to the universities.
"That's the equivalent of a budget cut," said Morehead State University President Wayne D. Andrews. Morehead had to find $2.4 million to cover its new buildings' utilities and maintenance in the past two years. At NKU, it was $4 million, Votruba said.
What the legislature chooses could be felt long beyond the 2011-2012 biennium. Leaving maintenance and operations money out of one budget, as lawmakers did last time, could have been construed as a one-time desperation move. But dropping it from two increases the risk it will be gone forever, said Robert L. King, president of the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education.
King, who sat in on the budget panel meetings with the presidents, said he's tried to encourage them to keep a united front and lobby for getting back the maintenance and operations money.
"The consequence is that in order to open a building you just built and furnish it and operate it, you've got to take the money from somewhere."
University of Kentucky President Lee T. Todd Jr. and University of Louisville President James R. Ramsey said in separate interviews that they also prefer operations funds over new construction if forced to choose.
"I'd always rather have recurring money than one-time money," Ramsey said.
UK's top building priority is a $205.9 million research building. But Todd said UK's space crunch is trumped by the chance at state funds to pay the utility bills.
"It would allow us to replace general fund money that we could then use for, someday, salary increases," said Todd, who is scheduled to appear with Ramsey at budget subcommittee meeting on Thursday.
Still, now is a tempting time to build with that domino effect that construction of multi-million dollar structures can have on local economies, the low interest rates and contractors offering better deals.
"It will never be cheaper," Eastern Kentucky University President Doug Whitlock told lawmakers.
Perhaps no university project better encapsulates the operations versus construction debate more than EKU's new science building, which is being constructed in two phases.
Since April, the five-story steel and concrete shell of the $64 million first section has risen out of a hillside on its Richmond campus.
When it opens by fall 2011, the 174,195-square-foot building will cost well over $1 million a year in maintenance and utilities despite energy efficiencies being built in, said James Street, associate vice president for capital planning and facility management.
Whitlock said he'd ultimately prefer state money for that, but he winces at the thought of delaying the building's second phase for two years because that comes with a cost.
The construction equipment already is in place and the switch from the first part of the building to the second part, which could cost an additional $65 million, would be seamless and efficient, Street said.
The complex is meant to bring all the science disciplines — biosciences, chemistry, geography and geology, physics and astronomy — under one roof.
"This will be replacing three buildings designed by architects using slide rules," Street said.
It also will include features to help EKU respond to directives the legislature has issued, such as supporting K-12 education in the region and cultivating more science graduates and science teachers. And aspiring science teachers will have better access to cutting-edge technology, said Malcolm P. Frisbie, professor of biological sciences.
"We're making a huge effort, particularly with future teachers to get them in inquiry mode," Frisbie said. "We've got to turn out teachers who love to fiddle with things and love the gross things, who can engage students. Otherwise you get a teacher who says, 'Put that down.' "
Frisbie said they expect the number of science majors — 932 undergraduates and 60 graduate students this year — to jump once the building opens. It's frame already is a recruiting tool, he said; he took a candidate for an open chemistry professorship to visit it Friday.
Even for Frisbie, the choice between the state finishing the complex or paying the building's bills is like an unsolvable physics problem.
Frisbie said his first instinct is to push for the second part of the building. But as scientists often do, he later challenged his hypothesis. Losing forever the maintenance funding could force the university to resort to pay cuts or layoffs to balance the budget, he reasoned.
"It is cruelly ironic that a down economy sends more people to school at the same time universities and colleges are forced to reduce their budgets", he said. "So it is, indeed, a Sophie's Choice."