The $54.6 million the University of Hawaii at Manoa is slated to spend on basic repair and maintenance work this year will hardly make a dent in the school’s notorious backlog, officials say.

Deferred construction and basic upkeep on UH’s flagship campus — ranging from building renovations to paint jobs — make up the bulk of the university’s more than $400 million backlog. But for now it looks like many of those needs will remain unmet, especially as long-overdue tasks continue to pile up.

That $54.6 million, according to Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple, “will cut (the backlog) down some, but it will basically prevent it from going up.”

“We’re making a commitment to spend more money, but we don’t have a whole lot of money to deal with,” Apple told the Board of Regents on Wednesday, noting that the university has had to implement austerity measures across the board. In the past the Manoa campus has spent about $40 million a year on basic upkeep. 

Laboratory sink area at Snyder Hall, UH Manoa on July 9, 2014.

A laboratory sink area at Snyder Hall, UH Manoa, on July 9, 2014.

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An unconventional plan to use $212 million in revenue bonds to eliminate the backlog, a proposal university administrators first pitched to lawmakers last December, failed to gain traction in the Legislature this year. Instead the university has to rely largely on tuition revenue and general allocations from the state. The 2014 Legislature earmarked $50 million in funding for deferred maintenance across all of UH’s 10 campuses, on top of the $37.5 million allocated last year and additional appropriations for specific projects. 

Manoa Chancellor Tom Apple said the university will continue to push for the revenue bond plan next legislative session.

Broken water foundation in hallway at Snyder Hall, UH Manoa on July 9, 2014.

A broken water foundation in a hallway at Snyder Hall, UH Manoa, on July 9, 2014.

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“I think we tilled the soil with the Legislature this year,” he said, suggesting that lawmakers are steadily regaining confidence in the university. The Legislature made big cuts to the university’s budget in recent years to hold UH accountable for spending fiascos such as the Wonder Blunder, when the school in an attempt to set up a Stevie Wonder benefit concert lost $200,000 to scammers claiming to represent the singer.

In an effort to focus resources on the university’s maintenance needs, the Board of Regents last year ordered a three-year moratorium on new construction with the exception of a handful of projects. 

But regents on Wednesday said they were still skeptical about the university’s spending on some projects that are exempt from the moratorium, including a new community outreach center at the law school that could cost $9 million.

About a third of the $54.6 million for UH Manoa will be spent on critical “health and safety” needs — repairs of sewer and storm drains, for example. The rest will go toward capital renewal and construction on facilities such as the College of Engineering Holmes Hall building and the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology on Coconut Island. 

Kuykendall Hall interior hallway at UH Manoa on July 9, 2014.

A window in Kuykendall Hall at UH Manoa on July 9, 2014.

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Other projects got specific capital improvement allocations from the Legislature this year, including $20 million for the renovation of Manoa’s Snyder Hall, a dilapidated building that houses science labs and classrooms. 

Meanwhile, the school is significantly reorganizing how it oversees facilities, combining into one department the offices in charge of long-term facilities planning and everyday repair and maintenance work. The idea is to make facilities management on the Manoa campus more efficient and streamlined, ultimately saving the university money and expediting projects.

But part of that reorganization plan requires a slew of additional facilities-related employees — 17 full-time positions that the Legislature approved but declined to fund. The university is using tuition dollars to fund those positions, which will cost about $1.2 million total, Apple said. 

Varney Circle ay UH Manoa on July 9, 2014

Varney Circle at UH Manoa on July 9, 2014

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Apple stressed that the Manoa campus has completed most of its basic repair and maintenance projects on budget and on time. The few projects that haven’t been as successful — the significantly overdue and over-budgeted Ching Athletic Complex, for example — are what give the school a bad reputation, he said. 

Still, Regent Jeff Portnoy urged Apple and other officials to reflect on and analyze the projects that did go wrong to prevent similar problems from happening in the future.

“I don’t doubt that 95 percent of what gets done here no one ever talks about because they’re done right,” he said. “But I would like to see what we’ve learned.”

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