Walk around the University of Hawaii at Manoa’s Biomedical Sciences building and you’ll find wires dangling from the ceiling, a missing fire alarm and a broken elevator.

UH estimates the Biomedical Sciences building has the highest deferred maintenance costs of any building at the Manoa campus, according to the state’s supplemental budget. The building would need $23.6 million to cover air conditioning, lighting, electrical, plumbing and fire protection system repairs.

But the problem with UH facilities is far larger than that.

In Hawaii Hall, the oldest permanent building on campus at nearly 104 years old, ceiling tiles on the bottom floor are missing after sustaining water damage. Office employees talk of a lanai that collapsed last year.

“I think there’s a lot of problems here — political problems. It’s not a logic problem.” — Diane Shimizu

Because UH doesn’t have the money to make any significant dent in deferred maintenance, the costs continue to pile up. In addition to the $354 million needed for UH Manoa, another $21.5 million is needed for UH Hilo and $59.2 million for the system’s community colleges.

Deferred maintenance has been a political struggle between UH and state legislators for years – just ask Diane Shimizu, who retired in 2015 after working 27 years for the university as a building coordinator of the Biomedical Sciences building and administrative officer for the nursing and dental hygiene school.

“I think there’s a lot of problems here — political problems,” Shimizu said. “It’s not a logic problem.”

UH officials say they're working to eliminate the maintenance backlog, but that they need the financial support from state lawmakers who control the purse strings.
UH officials say they’re working to eliminate the maintenance backlog, but that they need the financial support from state lawmakers who control the purse strings. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In the time she worked at the university, Shimizu found that if UH had financial problems, deferred maintenance would be the first place money was taken away.

“The only way we could catch up is we should stop building,” she said. “Stop building more state buildings, go back and look at the existing buildings, find out what the problems are, renovate the ones that you have up to the point that they become efficient.”

UH officials know they need to improve their facilities as quickly as possible.

In contrast to the $354 million the Manoa campus currently has racked up in deferred maintenance costs, $130 million was needed in 2007, according to a report from UH to the Western Association of Schools and Colleges.

A 2011 WASC survey of the Manoa campus predicted deferred maintenance could grow to become about $500 million by 2020, which is plausible based on the rate that costs have increased. Another WASC report from 2010 noted Manoa’s climate was “conducive to mold problems, which create health risks and add to the urgency of the deferred maintenance issue.”

UH officials know they need to improve their facilities as quickly as possible.

“Deferred maintenance is a major issue because it affects the quality of educational experience,” said Kalbert Young, UH vice president for budget and finance.

While UH has a plan for how to begin whittling away the deferred maintenance backlog over time, Young says more funding than what the university currently has would be needed.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, vice chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said UH had a management problem and would need to show the Legislature a different plan to secure more funding. He said UH would need to evaluate the projects they considered crucial to their academic mission and would bring in the most funding.

“It’s awful,” Dela Cruz said. “Especially (UH) Manoa needs to have a list of priorities of what they’re really chasing.”

Rep. Isaac Choy, chair of the House’s Higher Education Committee, blamed the continued increase in the deferred maintenance backlog on management problems at UH. The backlog is now $503 million.

Choy, who described the campus as “shabby chic,” said that if UH were to create a comprehensive plan to address the problem and could keep costs the same or lower, he would be more comfortable with advocating for more funding to go toward deferred maintenance.

“I’ve always told them, ‘Your footprint is not sustainable, therefore you must decrease your square footage,’ which is something that the university has a very, very difficult time doing,” Choy said.

University of Hawaii at Manoa Krauss Annex weathered wood
Krauss Annex at UH Manoa suffers from weathered wood on its exterior, among other problems. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

However, Young said that it was too generalized to say that expansion was the primary cause of increased deferred maintenance costs.

“Expansion is actually occurring at UH West Oahu. That’s really the only expansion that’s occurring throughout the UH system, and that’s part of the legislative mandate to grow that campus,” he said. “UH Manoa, though, is where the vast majority of the deferred maintenance actually exists.”

Young said that UH had come up with a model that could address deferred maintenance in six to 10 years with $60 million to $80 million of both state and university money spent per year. However, he said the $72.5 million allotted for UH capital renewal and deferred maintenance in the FY 2017 state budget is not enough to make headway on the backlog.

UH has looked at several options to come up with its part of the funding including the closure of some buildings, which have not yet been identified, or a slight tuition increase. A tuition increase of 1 percent could raise about $4 million, Young said.

In her time at UH, Shimizu said she felt ever-increasing deferred maintenance costs were not purely an issue of funding, but of other factors as well.

When people at UH would switch offices, Shimizu said, they would take with them their personal goals for what they would like to accomplish in that position, which caused some projects to be delayed or left behind.

She also said that when evaluating maintenance projects, UH should pay closer attention to what improvements would serve the most students and maximize revenues.

“How is this going to help the whole objective of the university?” Shimizu said.

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