USC Aiken asks for millions from South Carolina

A failing heating and cooling system at the University of South Carolina Aiken has contributed to mold problems and high electricity bills. Borrowing could help fix that but some S.C. lawmakers are skeptical.
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A failing heating and cooling system at the University of South Carolina Aiken has contributed to mold problems and high electricity bills. Borrowing could help fix that but some S.C. lawmakers are skeptical.


As SC colleges crumble, will legislators dodge repair bill again in 2018?

By Maayan Schechter

October 20, 2017 04:07 PM

At S.C. State University, slow internet kept some students from finishing class assignments on time, accessing education materials online and using their purchasing cards to buy meals and books.

A dated information system also opened sensitive student data to security threats. On top of network issues, building roofs leaked, and more than 680 dorm rooms were not being used because of much-needed maintenance.

To fix those problems, outlined in a list of needs from state colleges and universities, S.C. State University officials initially asked the state for more than $40 million, joining other higher-education institutions in seeking state money for building and technology upgrades.

For S.C. State, a panel of House lawmakers recommended $8 million – $5 million for technology and $3 million for maintenance – as part of a nearly $500 million proposed borrowing plan.

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That proposal failed to pass earlier this year after S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster threatened to veto it.

S.C. State was forced to find money elsewhere to cover the school’s most severe needs, said James Clark, the school’s president.

An effort to revive the proposal faces high hurdles next year, namely from GOP lawmakers and a Republican governor, who say they want to see colleges better manage their spending, not borrow money.

McMaster acknowledged S.C. colleges have critical needs but said the state should stay out of the business of borrowing. “It’s better to pay cash than to borrow the money.”

Others, however, say the state has waited too long since the state last borrowed for higher education – in 2001 – and its colleges are falling into disrepair.

Asking for ‘a basic need’

This year, S.C. State received $350,000 from the state’s reserves for technology upgrades and $2.5 million from the S.C. Education Lottery.

But the school still has many needs, Clark said.

The rise in student enrollment – nearly 3,000 – makes an already outdated software system move even slower, causing staff to work longer hours and risk burning out, he said.

“Frankly, it’s a slap in the face ... given the needs they (S.C. State) have,” said state Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg.

The state’s only historically black public college is far from the only school asking for more state money.

At the University of South Carolina Aiken, a more than 40-year-old heating and cooling system contributes to mold problems and high electric bills for the school’s Penland Administration Building.

Built in 1973 as the gateway to the Aiken campus, the building houses several school classrooms and administrative offices.

“There have been a couple of times we’ve had to move people out of offices to get rid of mold,” said Brian Enter, the school’s senior facilities executive. “We put a dehumidifier in, and it takes care of the issue. But, again, it’s just a Band-Aid. ... We’re still pumping in air too humid.”

The system also is adding to higher electricity bills for the Aiken school – about $150,000 a year. A complete fix could cut the building’s electricity bill almost in half, Enter said.

USC-Aiken officials asked the state for $3.5 million. House lawmakers agreed to that amount in the proposed bond bill.

“We’re not asking to build a new building. This is a basic need,” Enter said, adding the college contributes $281 million a year to South Carolina’s economy. “Typically, (with) HVAC systems, 20 years is a lifetime. We’ve doubled the lifetime of it.”

‘Skepticism’ over bond bill

Next fall’s election could hurt a bond bill’s chances of passing when legislators return to Columbia in January, some legislators say.

“Election years are traditionally nonproductive years for generating revenue. Legislators are so afraid of being accused of raising taxes that, over the years, we have shirked our responsibilities to the public sector,” Cobb-Hunter said. “We just muddle through all of these years without addressing the capital needs of state government. Not just higher education, but state agencies.”

After years of tuition hikes, however, not all voters and S.C. legislators are in the mood to spend more state money on higher education.

S.C. Senate Majority Leader Shane Massey said passing a bond bill next year is not impossible. But getting one through the Senate is unlikely, he added.

“I think a bond bill will be met with skepticism,” the Edgefield Republican said.

Last year, more than 30 of the state’s universities and technical colleges asked for $1.1 billion in one-time money for building construction, renovations and upgrades.

Those requests included nearly $178 million for the University of South Carolina, including $50 million to jump-start construction of a new, $200 million medical school and health sciences campus.

Clemson University asked for $103 million.

The House panel whittled those requests to almost $251 million, recommending $25 million each for USC and Clemson, and $94.9 million split among the 16 technical colleges and four two-year branches. The bill does not include new construction.

State spending on higher education has fallen off since the Great Recession. For some schools – particularly those with small donor lists – finding millions of dollars to cover needed maintenance and newer buildings has not been easy. In response, colleges have raised tuition to shore up their budgets.

Now some lawmakers say colleges must reverse that trend by cutting tuition and fees if they want the state to borrow money for higher ed facilities.

“They talk a lot about how the state isn’t funding them as the state should,” Massey said. “There’s probably some legitimacy to that, but realistically, their budgets have increased, their expenditures have increased more rapidly than state contributions would have.”

‘State did not step up’

Despite concerns over how the state’s public colleges spend their money, some lawmakers are eager to find a fix for the state’s colleges and universities.

S.C. House Majority Leader Gary Simrill, R-York, said House budget chief Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, is working on higher education reform “because, certainly, none of us want tuition increased,” he said.

“Part of the issue has been the state did not step up and take care of buildings and needs on college campuses,” said Simrill, vice chairman of the House’s budget-writing committee. “The college did it themselves.”

Before 2001, the S.C. Legislature would pass a bond bill every few years to keep up with the state’s growth and needs.

But the GOP-controlled Legislature slowed borrowing under the administrations of Govs. Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley – both Republicans.

State Rep. Bill Taylor, R-Aiken, called borrowing money for deferred maintenance a “bad practice” but said he would support a bond bill narrowly defined to fix true maintenance problems.

“Certainly, USC Aiken is a prime example of that,” he said. “We ought to require the universities and colleges to squirrel away ‘X’ amount of money for each year for each building, just like we homeowners do or we have to do so that maintenance is never deferred.”

Jeff Wilkinson contributed to this report.

Maayan Schechter: 803-771-8657, @MaayanSchechter

Rebuilding SC colleges?

Several Midlands and area universities asked for millions to cover needed repairs and renovations. A look at the state money legislators are considering spending as some of those schools:

University of South Carolina – $25 million for old law school renovation

S.C. State University – $8 million for upgrades to information technology and critical maintenance

USC Aiken – $3.5 million for new HVAC system in the Penland Administration Building

Winthrop University – $10 million for electrical distribution upgrades and critical maintenance

USC Palmetto College – $7.94 million for renovations to the Gregory Health and Wellness Center, the Salkehatiche-Walterboro Science Building, the Sumter Science Building and Union-Truluck Gym

S.C.’s technical colleges – $87 million to be split amongst the state’s technical colleges

Total request recommendations under bond bill: $251 million

Source: S.C. House Ways and Means Committee