UMaine expects to meet major construction deadlines despite withheld bonds, putting off smaller projects
ORONO, Maine — Despite appearances and nearly $3.7 million in infrastructure funding withheld by the governor, the two major construction projects on the University of Maine’s flagship campus are on schedule, according to university officials.
In order to ensure the work gets done and contracts are fulfilled, however, the university had to sideline three other campus projects until the state releases the bond funding, which had been approved by voters.
Nutting Hall, the 44-year-old home to UMaine’s School of Forest Resources, and the former Stewart Dining Commons, slated to become the new hub for the university’s art and new media programs, are in the midst of multimillion-dollar transformations.
Maine voters passed a bond issue in 2010 that dedicated $9.5 million toward energy efficiency and infrastructure projects at University of Maine System campuses. Most projects under that bond already have been completed, but the Nutting and Stewart renovations still are very much in the works.
At Nutting the building’s facade is mostly missing. Debris and construction materials are strewn throughout the interior and exterior of the building.
“It’s at a somewhat ugly point internally,” Janet Waldron, UMaine’s vice president for administration and finance, said last week. “I think people see that and think ‘how can it possibly come together?’ which of course it will.”
Stewart is in a similar state, with walls still going up and pallets of building materials scattered on the lawn awaiting installation.
Crews are working at a rapid pace, Waldron said, and are expected to meet their deadlines. Work inside Nutting will continue after students begin taking classes there in September, but that was expected, Waldron said. Nutting’s projected completion date is Oct. 23.
Stewart is due for “substantial completion” by the end of December, according to the university.
In order to cover costs that were supposed to be covered by the unreleased bonds, the university had to reprioritize, putting three smaller renovations on the back burner until the state issues the remaining bonds and releases the funding, which Gov. Paul LePage has said would happen by 2015.
Waldron said that the work to create and upgrade labs, classrooms and other facilities in those buildings would have been used by hundreds of students and faculty, or thousands in the case of Aubert Hall.
“They’re important spaces for the campus,” Waldron said. “We could be using these spaces to a much higher use to the benefit of the students and the university, so there is an impact in that regard. We fully intend to use those in the future here, so it’s a matter of delay.”
Gov. LePage announced in late May that he planned to hold up the sale of about $40 million in bonds — including $11 million for the University of Maine System — that voters approved in recent years but that the state treasurer’s office has not yet sold.
Those bonds included roughly $3.7 million the university had planned to spend to finish work on Nutting and Stewart, which hasn’t been used since 2007.
LePage’s decision was part of an attempt to bring state spending into check, the governor’s office has said.
“Even with the voters’ authorization to borrow this money, my administration will not spend it until we’ve lowered our debt significantly,” LePage said at the time of his announcement. “That could be several years.”
The university no longer had the money it thought it did, but that hasn’t stopped the work, according Waldron.
“We did not stop the projects at all,” Waldron said during an Aug. 16 interview. “They couldn’t be stopped, they were already well under way.”
By the time the governor made his announcement, contracts already had been signed and demolition work had begun.
“The building was torn apart … so we had to move the project forward,” Waldron said.
In June, Gov. LePage sent a letter to the University of Maine System asking that the university provide details of the projects and justification as to why they were necessary. The system sent a packet the next month, outlining the status of the projects and sharing pictures of the buildings, which were gutted, stripped and far from usable.
Nutting renovations include heating and cooling system improvements, roof and insulation replacement, a new energy management system, new siding, the replacement of nearly 600 exterior windows and more.
Waldron said Monday that the university expects to save more than $50,000 annually in energy costs thanks to the Nutting upgrades.
Stewart, another building built in the 1960s, is being converted from an outdated dining commons to a new home for the university ’ s new media and art programs, which have had their growth constrained in the past by lack of space.
The state responded to UMaine’s justification with a three-paragraph memo in which LePage stated that he would authorize the treasurer to issue the $3.67 million in bonds no sooner than January 2014 and no later than June 2015.
Ryan Low, executive director of government and external affairs for the university system, said he felt the university and governor’s office were able to reach a satisfactory deal, considering the state’s fiscal tribulations.
“Considering the economic challenges that not just the state and the university but everyone is going through, it’s a reasonable solution,” Low said.
Waldron said she understands the governor’s desire to help quell Maine’s economic problems by stalling the issuance of bonds.
“We would have prefered to draw against the bonds as originally planned,” Waldron said, “but understand that the governor had a vision, and the need to look at the state’s debt situation.”