Electricity bill suffering from inflation

By By Alicia Williams

By Alicia Williams

Technology has dramatically improved since Utah began its electrical service in the spring of 1881. The current U campus has relied on that electricity for 108 years. People nonchalantly flip power switches expecting the lights to go on, never imagining a day when they won’t, but we should.

Cory Higgins, director of Plant Operations, said 41 percent of U buildings were built in the 1950s and 1960s.

In fall 2007, the campus had 298 buildings, a majority of them 40 years or older. The School of Medicine, the Huntsman Arena, Marriott Library, Biology Building, Pioneer Memorial and the U Campus Store are just a few on the long list of campus buildings built in the ’60s.

The high voltage electrical infrastructure of these buildings has seen better days. That’s because it was installed while each was built. The technology supporting the electrical distribution into those buildings is also 40-plus years old. A computer is now considered obsolete after two years and an ancient dinosaur after five.

Higgins said even though the power is kicking on each and every day faithfully, the aged system is deteriorating, and because it has been neglected for years it’s failing more and more often. The state needs to replace it before there is a catastrophic failure.

The Utah Legislature, agreeing to pay for future operations and maintenance of buildings built with state funds, established a yearly reoccurring amount attached to each building built after 1986. The funds are based on costs of estimated labor and materials at the time it’s built. That amount is then added to a pre-determined general O&M funding amount that accounts for all the buildings constructed in that time.

The state never increases the yearly amount even though inflation has increased costs for O&M considerably during the years, especially for older buildings. The only way new funds are added to increase the routine O&M fund is when a new building is built, which then adds additional space that needs to be maintained.

Basically, the U is forced to use funds given for new buildings, which are added into the general fund, to put out fires caused by old buildings because the unchanging, yearly base fund is inadequate for the older buildings.

“The formula says that, on average, the U should get $4.51 a square foot to maintain their buildings, (but) we spend $3.60 because that is all we have, that’s all we get,” Higgins said. “So, we end up starving everybody rather than deal with it. And what we do is we starve the new buildings, take their money and feed the older buildings.”

He also said the U is a large, old institution and a situation has been created where we are operating on 70 percent of what other schools are in the state. A 30 percent decrease in the budget makes a huge difference on how much maintenance can be accomplished each year.

“Which simply means that infrastructure or other building things gets ignored and before long, you’ve got systems that can’t adequately function, because you haven’t done maintenance of it for 20 years,” Higgins said.

On top of all that, sweeping budget cuts have made the problem even more difficult. Plant operations were cut by 4 percent, which will not make it any easier for the department to fulfill their mission statement.

Without adequate O&M funding, infrastructure problems and concerns were put on the back burner for years. The U is stuck with the critical problems of an aged and deteriorating system as a result.

The U is a huge contributor to the state of Utah both financially and scientifically. It’s time Utah made up for the years of neglect and insufficient funding by requiring yearly inflation increases to O&M for higher education across the state.

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Alicia Williams

Willus Branham