FORT KENT, Maine — The University of Maine System has targeted its office in downtown Bangor for closure, an official said Monday during a board of trustees meeting at the University of Maine at Fort Kent.
The proposal to close the office at 16 Central St. was made by UMS Vice Chancellor for Administration and Finance Rebecca Wyke, according to a spokesman for the system. The closure would be part of a systemwide effort to cut costs amid a looming $69 million budget shortfall by 2019.
“When the system office closes, the remaining university service staff will be located on our campuses across Maine,” said the system’s executive director of public affairs, Dan Demeritt, in an email announcing the proposal. “System governance staff (14 or so people like me, the chancellor and vice chancellors) would be located on campuses as well.”
Many members of the university staff who operate under the direction of the system office, such as staff in information technology, human resources and procurement, already work on campus, Demeritt said.
“I think that there is a real opportunity in locating senior administrators much closer to the people that they’re serving,” Wyke said after Monday’s meeting.
She said no decisions have been made about where the chancellor’s office would be located if this proposal goes forward, though she added that the chancellor wants to keep his top advisers together and they are committed to not making people move, which would appear to make the Bangor campus of University of Maine at Augusta or the University of Maine campus in Orono the likeliest locations.
There are 102 people working at the Bangor office whose positions would be moved to one of the campuses, according to Demeritt. The office of UMS Chancellor James Page also is in the building, which can accommodate 120. The total cost of operating the building is $141,000 per year.
The system also could profit from selling the portion of the building it owns.
The board of trustees would have to vote to approve the move, and there is no date set for it yet.
In 2004, the city and UMS signed an agreement that resulted in a property swap. Bangor took over a series of properties on Maine Avenue that formerly served as the university system headquarters, while UMS took ownership of a condominium unit in the historic W.T. Grant building near the heart of Bangor’s downtown.
UMS owns the top three floors of the building, which the city agreed to invest more than $3 million in to renovate before the s ystem’s move in 2005. The city also agreed to set aside up to 120 parking spaces in the downtown area for UMS employees.
As part of that deal, UMS pledged to “undertake its best good faith efforts to maintain its primary office location in the Grant building for at least 20 years,” according to agreement documents.
When asked Monday about the good faith effort, Demeritt said the system and its universities have a “strong commitment to the Bangor region.”
“While the financial challenges facing public higher education force us to look for efficiencies wherever we can, we will work closely with the city of Bangor and community members to identify the best use for the property at 16 Central St.,” he said.
City Manager Cathy Conlow said Monday afternoon that Chip Gavin, UMS director of facilities management and general services, notified her about two weeks ago that UMS was beginning to discuss potentially shedding its downtown headquarters.
“It certainly didn’t sound like it would be imminent at that point,” Conlow said, adding that she expects the city would be involved in the discussion if the proposal moves forward.
If UMS trustees were to decide to sell the top three floors of the Grant building, the city has first right of refusal to purchase the property at fair market value. That holds true until July 1, 2030, when that right expires.
Conlow said that if the property did go up for sale, the city’s economic development department would discuss the potential of purchasing the property and searching out some new use.
The UMS offices, which are known as Unit 2 in the Grant building, are valued at just over $1 million, according to the city assessor.
“We love having them downtown,” because an office that brings 100 employees to the heart of the city on a daily basis is a big boost to businesses and vibrancy in the area, Conlow said.
When asked whether the University of Maine Museum of Art, which is located at 40 Harlow St., would be affected, Demeritt said he had nothing to share.
In other business, the board of trustees voted Monday for the elimination of three programs at the University of Southern Maine and to sell the Stone House, a century-old USM building in Freeport that administrators say is underused.
The proposal to cut three USM programs — New England and American studies, geosciences, and the arts and humanities program at the Lewiston-Auburn campus — has generated protests on campus. Objections over the cutting process were amplified when Monday’s meeting was moved from USM to Fort Kent.
The program cuts are part of a systemwide effort to cut $69 million from the budget by fiscal year 2019. USM President David Flanagan has said that his campus is facing $15 million in cuts this year alone. University of Maine officials have not yet said how much they will cut.
Five representatives from USM attended and spoke at the meeting Monday, according to Susan Feiner, an economics and gender studies professor who has spoken against the cuts.
Feiner questioned whether cutting programs is an effective way to save money, because with fewer programs and classes, the university will attract fewer students, who are the main source of revenue.
The cuts come as a result of a budget shortfall that administrators say is caused by flat funding from the state, frozen tuition rates and a declining student population in Maine paired with the rising costs of running the institution.
To help mitigate the budget shortfall and maintain the tuition freeze, the trustees voted Monday to ask the Legislature for an increase in the state appropriation.
After two consecutive years of receiving $176.2 million, the system will ask for $182.2 million for fiscal year 2016 and $189.1 million for fiscal year 2017, increases of 3.4 and 3.8 percent, respectively.
In 2012, system administrators and the trustees agreed to freeze tuition, which had been steadily increasing each year for decades, if the state would not reduce the appropriation.
Wyke said if the Legislature does not approve the increase in appropriation, the trustees will have to cut more and consider whether to raise tuition.
Trustees also voted Monday to:
— Eliminate several programs at UMaine.
— Spend up to $3 million to replace boilers at USM’s Portland campus.
— Spend up to $1.7 million to renovate Little Hall at UMaine
— Spend up to $1.3 million to renovate the dish room in a dining hall at UMaine.