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State funds to address unmet ‘time bomb’ maintenance needs for UA

TUCSON, Ariz. – On a sweltering afternoon in the middle of summer last year, patients at the Banner-University Medical Center at the University of Arizona suddenly had to be evacuated and moved to the neighboring Diamond Children’s Medical Center when the power cut out.

A surge of electricity had overloaded the hospital’s circuit breaker, knocking out the building’s primary power and causing the backup generator to burst into flames. The hospital’s basement mechanical room filled with smoke, which floated up to the patient floor above.

Tucson Fire Department investigators quickly identified the culprit: an equipment failure in a university building next door. Because the two buildings’ electrical systems are linked, it caused a chain reaction that affected both buildings.

When the university facilities management crew began repairing the problems, they found equipment and parts that were so old, it would be nearly impossible to fix them. Scouring eBay was the only way to find the fuses they needed.

A lot of the equipment in there is from the 1960s, said Chris Kopach, Assistant Vice President of Facilities Management at the University of Arizona.

Since the fire, the university’s facilities management department has been working on separating the two electrical systems “so, if Banner did have a failure on their end, the university’s equipment would continue to stay up,” and vice versa, Kopach said.

That “catastrophic failure,” was the result of years of maintenance that wasn’t performed on the system because of a lack of funding, Gregg Goldman, the senior vice president for business affairs and chief financial officer for the University of Arizona, told the Arizona Board of Regents in November 2016.

Unexpected maintenance nightmares caused by aging systems aren’t entirely uncommon at Arizona’s public universities, but university administrators and public officials are hopeful that a plan recently passed by the Legislature and signed by Gov. Doug Ducey will help address the mounting challenge.

It’s been an ongoing concern, said Arizona Board of Regents President Eileen Klein. “It’s been an operating concern for the universities and it’s been a big, growing business concern for us.”

In the face of insufficient resources, gutted budgets and reduced state funding, maintenance concerns for aging buildings and backlogged upkeep has turned into a ticking “time bomb,” Goldman said.

Today will be remembered as one that paved the way for decades of breakthroughs at our universities; one that opened the door for Arizona students to receive the highest-caliber university experience; and one that makes Arizona second to none in support of higher education.Gov. Doug Ducey said in a May 22 statement after signing the bill that authorized the funding.

Starting in 2019, the universities will receive $27 million per year for the next 25 years from the state’s general fund, with an annual increase to match inflation up to 2 percent. The universities will in turn match state funding with money from their own budgets to go towards research and development projects and deferred maintenance. Each university will match the state funds.

In the first year, ASU will receive about $12 million, NAU $4.5 million and UA will receive in $10.5 million.Senate Republicans largely supported the proposal, SB1532, with all members voting in favor of it with the exception of Sen. Warren Petersen, Gilbert, who did not respond to request for comment. Support from senate Democrats was evenly split.

While Senate Minority Leader Katie Hobbs, D-Phoenix, supported the funding proposal, she said she ultimately voted against it because she felt it unjustly took funding from K-12 education.

This article was initially published at AZCIR

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