FEATURE: Deferred maintenance at McMaster sits at $300M

For many students, water-damaged windows and roofs, out-of-order toilets and insulation peeking out of broken ceiling tiles are familiar sights. Throughout the year we experience dozens of minor, everyday inconveniences and brush them off as something that will be fixed, eventually. Until then we do our best to ignore the water dripping from the ceiling into a yellow bucket.

These annoyances are symptoms of deferred maintenance (DM), a problem that’s getting bigger all the time. It boils down to a simple enough idea: things are breaking, and there isn’t the money to fix them. Of course, when you spread that idea out over a 300 acre campus, tens of years, and multiple university, provincial and federal budgets, it gets complex – fast.

DM is defined as “work on the maintenance of physical facilities that has been postponed on a planned or unplanned basis to a future budget cycle or until funds become available,” and its severity really came to the university’s attention in December 2012 when facility services released a comprehensive report called the Asset Management Plan. This 38-page document systematically categorized the issue and revealed a staggering $300M DM backlog.

That figure was a surprise, even to the university administration. “The University knew about a backlog of $150M prior to 2012, which was based on an old Condition Assessment Survey,” said Mohamed Attalla, assistant vice-president and Chief Facilities Officer. “However, there was not a clear and detailed analysis that highlighted the urgency. Also, there was no clear plan and priorities to move forward.”

DM has the potential to severely affect research and teaching on campus, and is made more problematic by its often behind-the-scenes nature. “It deals with things you can’t see,” said Attalla. It’s hidden in the walls in fraying cables and leaky pipes; it’s hidden in the basement in rusting boilers and dusty transformers; and it’s hidden off-campus in a power substation that is serving beyond its intended lifetime.

Robert O’Brien, a professor of Global Labour Studies, spoke about the difficulties associated with teaching in such an environment. He complained about a lack of Wi-Fi access, A.V. equipment, and proper ventilation. “About half of my teaching takes place in rooms like that,” he said.

With the full scope of the mountain of maintenance revealed, the university moved to begin addressing it. Prior to the report, the DM budget for facility services was $2.2M, just 0.14 per cent of the current replacement value (CRV) of the campus. CRV is calculated by multiplying the square footage of campus buildings by a dollar amount standard for all Ontario universities, and the Council of Ontario Universities recommends a minimum annual budget allocation towards maintenance of 1.5 per cent of the CRV of buildings and infrastructure. It warns that an amount less than this will cause the DM backlog to grow.

In response to the Asset Management Plan’s recommendations, Mac administration intends to increase DM funding by $2M annually until it reaches $10.7M. This means that, for 2013/14, $4.9M has been budgeted for DM. Though an improvement, it’s still a far cry from the $23.4M necessary to reach the recommended 1.5 per cent of campus CRV.

It’s also much lower than some universities similar to McMaster. The Asset Management Plan compared Mac to Ottawa and Western, universities of similar size, and found that even back in 2011, they were budgeting $26M and $11M respectively towards DM.

The insufficiency of the current budget is known to administrators. “Based on what we have here, the current funding we agreed to, we’re not looking at making a dip or a dive in the deferred maintenance. It will continue to rise actually, but it will rise at a slower pace,” said Attalla.

So it’s more, but still not enough. Attalla acknowledges this, but emphasizes the complicated nature of budgeting for a large institution like McMaster. “The university needs to make decisions. There are lots of unfunded priorities […] but you need dollars to fund them. The agreed-to level of funding here takes into consideration the other pressures we have somewhere else in the university,” he said.

“The hope is that after we deal with our current pressure, hopefully five years from now we’ll be able to increase 10M dollars even more to reach some other universities.”

MSU President David Campbell echoed that sentiment. “Very understandably, often deferred maintenance comes up against academic priorities, and sometimes rightly so. The maintenance becomes deferred because there are more pressing priorities. And I think everybody would agree that that is a necessary thing sometimes,” he said.

“But it’s when you start getting into these critical priorities like ‘in the next 12 months this wall might fall down but we can’t find the money to fix it.’ That critical aspect is when it needs to be addressed right away.”

The Asset Management Plan defines components as critical “if they are still in operation and are operating beyond their designed and useful life […] It is important to note that McMaster’s total DM backlog classified as critical amounts to $28.86 million and by definition should be corrected within the next year.” Accounting for the recent budget increase, the difference between needed critical repairs and funding is $24M, not including components that may have decayed to become critical since the report was released.

That means that McMaster is running with at least $24M of its equipment and buildings operating beyond their intended lifespan.

Last year the MSU published a policy paper outlining students’ position regarding DM. “Our first recommendation was that in the short term [the university’s contributions to DM] should go up to $12.5M,” said Campbell. “Our long term recommendation was that contributions should go up to $25M, and that should be a collaboration between the university and the province, since both bear part of the burden on this.”

Attalla is also hoping the university can collaborate with the province, saying that “the hope is that with lobbying the provincial government, it will put more money into this sector.”

But hope won’t double-pane Mac’s windows. It’s important that the university continue increasing DM funding for years to come. “The university’s made a commitment to continue increasing deferred maintenance contributions over the next few years, and I think we should be pushing to have that continue happening, whether that’s through new campaigns or an official lobby,” said Campbell.

Until that happens, though, students will just have to pray it doesn’t rain too hard.

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