(Released on 2/03/08)
Complaints about the university’s athletic facilities should come as no surprise as the same can be said of many of the other state run facilities from schools to roads to various office buildings.
While some may say that this sad state of public facilities is due to the lack of money, that is not the entire story when one sees how much has been spent to build and maintain the state’s buildings. So what is the problem with maintaining the state’s facilities? Having visited this problem in the early 1990’s as part of a task force to examine why school facilities were not being repaired in a timely manner and therefore students had to contend with peeling paint, broken windows, and the like, the problem is more than money. It is the system or the process in how the state goes about accomplishing the repair and maintenance of state facilities.
In the late 1980’s early 1990’s the department of education was granted $90 million a year for the repair and maintenance of school facilities, first in the form of a carve out of general excise tax revenues and later in the form of proceeds from general obligation bonds. However, when a department official was queried as to just how much the department could actually spend in any one year, the amount was just half of the annual allotment.
As the task force soon learned, it was the system or maze through which a maintenance or repair project had to make its way within the system of procurement, bidding, contract language, and specifications. As a project moved through the system’s maze, each employee responsible for some aspect of the process just took care of his job, and once it left that desk, it was on to another desk to await the work of yet another employee. Sometimes tasks were done to excess. For example, for some smaller jobs, the attorney’s put together a fill-in- the-blank type of contract. All one had to do was to put in the name of the vendor, the description of what was to be done and the agreed upon price for the job. All the other provisions were boilerplate, in other words, the provisions were the same, like deadlines for when payments would be made were all standard. Even though it was merely filling in the blanks, the contract still had to go back to the attorneys for a “legal” check. Of course, this meant more time delays and therefore the repairs were delayed.
And the school repairs didn’t have to deal with going to the legislature to “beg” for the money, as the money was already available, it was merely a matter of telling the legislature what the department’s priorities were. Imagine the even longer delay for those state facilities that do not automatically get money set aside for their repair and maintenance.
One of the recommendations of the task force was that the department should consider assigning project managers to the various projects that would shepard the project through the bureaucratic maze, making sure that some project awaiting review and approval didn’t sit on someone’s desk longer than needed. This is an idea that is used in the private sector when a developer or contractor wants to secure all the necessary permits from the state or the city. The recommendation even suggested that incentives be provided to the project manager if the project was completed either on time or ahead of time.
Since that task force made its recommendation, another layer of delay has been added to the process prompted by the questionable way state contracts were handed out. The state in the mid-1990’s adopted a procurement code that has gone beyond what was ever envisioned, becoming a true nightmare with which to contend. While the state needs to remain accountable in how it spends taxpayer dollars, it should not create a system that basically brings the repair and maintenance of state facilities to a snail’s pace. And while it appears that within the state system the concept of time is money doesn’t exist, it certainly shows in the costly repairs when the job is done.
So perhaps UH fans will call for the upgrade of the athletic facilities on the Manoa campus. But don’t hold your breath that they are going to be finished anytime soon. Until the system is reformed, Hawaii’s taxpayers will have to put up with deteriorating facilities.
One alternative is to privatize the repair and maintenance of state facilities, but then again, the unions probably won’t like that either just as much as they dislike the privatization of waste management.