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Lots of building needs — but no cash

Lawmakers may bond for higher ed facilities

How to meet Utah colleges' building needs will all come down to a cash-strapped 2004 Legislature, which will soon be bombarded by myriad funding requests.

The State Board of Regents and the State Building Board heard as much when Kevin Walthers spoke at a meeting of the two boards Friday. Walthers is with the Utah Office of the Legislative Fiscal Analyst.

"There's no cash," he said after the meeting.

Legislators, then, may decide to bond for any number of building project needs presented this week by presidents of Utah's 10 colleges and universities.

Just for construction and remodeling costs, the Legislature could be tapped for about $163 million if all the higher education projects make it past a vote of the State Building Board next month.

Higher ed projects will also have to compete with highway requests, which last year landed $106 million to higher education's $48 million in state funds ($40 million went to Utah State University alone).

State higher education commissioner Cecelia Foxley said an "assumption" might be made that colleges and universities waiting in line for building money might get at least $65 million, about the amount in bonds being retired by the state this year.

Walthers said, however, that the state's debt service has continued to increase and that bonding will likely be needed if buildings are built or remodeled on college campuses. That would probably mean those schools would need to find their own matching funds or find some way to make up the difference, assuming the bonds don't cover the cost of the project.

Some creative financing is already taking place on college campuses across the state.

Snow College President Michael Benson said his school has a $2 million private donation for a combination library/classroom facility that would benefit students at the school and the city. Voters in Ephraim will also be voting on a bond in the fall that will go toward the new building.

The University of Utah is raising money "brick by brick" for an engineering school project — the U. already has $15 million from the Legislature and it has raised about $12 million of the $13 million still needed.

The U. is second on a list of nine projects, prioritized by regents, to fix structural problems and add on to its Marriott Library. The U. wants to request $45 million from the state, but it has committed to raise $18 million, $10 million of which is locked in while $6 million more in private donations hinges on whether the state will find funding for a particular project.

Other schools are finding ways to partner with outside resources to, for example, fulfill an enormous need in Utah to educate nurses. Three of the requests out of the regents' current list of nine are for health sciences buildings.

"I don't think there's any question," said regents chairman Nolan Karras. "We need more capacity for nursing (education)."

Nursing isn't the only discipline hurting for space.

Salt Lake Community College, like other higher ed schools, is bursting at the seams with overall student growth. By the year 2022, the total fall head count for all of Utah's colleges and universities is projected at 216,766, up dramatically from the 2002-2003 count of 138,625.

As need for space becomes greater, one projection shows that colleges and universities will need about $65 million a year for the next 20 years just to keep up with student growth.

And as student growth continues to rise, school leaders are concerned about the trend in dismal state funding assistance as they look for ways to increase faculty salaries before professors start looking elsewhere for jobs.

U. President Bernie Machen pointed to his school's comparatively low tuition and fees and said other similar-sized universities in the region are charging more to keep up with rising costs and budget shortfalls.

During a discussion of building needs, Rep. Loraine Pace, R-Logan, summed things up this way, "There's never going to be all the money we want."


E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com