Univ. Construction Projects Draw Governor's Ire After Officials Ask for Additional Funding

By Brian Marron

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Larry Hogan — along with the rest of the Board of Public Works — did not hide his irritation with Maryland universities’ request for nearly $35 million in construction funding above original estimates, after officials were unable to clearly explain their requests.

“We’re trying to be fiscally responsible… and I hear some people at universities talking about wanting to raise tuition rates, and we’re here talking about $35 million more than you thought you were going to spend,” said Hogan, a Republican, at Wednesday’s board meeting. “It just seems out of whack to me.”

The board delayed voting on $29 million in additional funding for four projects, including academic buildings at Bowie State University, Salisbury University and the University of Maryland Eastern Shore; and a Universities at Shady Grove parking garage. They approved a $6 million payment for an athletic complex at Salisbury.

Comptroller Peter Franchot, a Democrat, was also upset with the universities’ process of asking for more money after the approval of initial cost estimates.

“How can we possibly have any confidence (in the original estimates) if the bid is just a placeholder, you adjust it, and move forward?” Franchot said. “That’s just absurd. How can you run a business like that?”

University System of Maryland Procurement Acting Director Jim Haley and Interim Executive Planning and Construction Director Bill Olen blamed a changing and unfriendly market as the culprit for the additional funding needs.

Franchot said he was skeptical of that reasoning.

University construction officials at the board meeting Wednesday characterized the requests as contract modifications rather than budget increases, and said the additional funding would not impact the state’s budget.

But board members were unimpressed.

Treasurer Nancy Kopp expressed frustration over convoluted and complex written proposals to the board from the University System of Maryland’s Capital Planning Office. Board Executive Secretary Sheila McDonald also noted that the contract language hampered the universities’ requests.

“I think you do yourselves a great injustice and cause confusion on everyone’s part by not writing (explanations for these requests) in a way a normal person would,” Kopp told Haley and Olen regarding their requests for funding. “We don’t understand it.”

Hogan also expressed disappointment that James Salt, the associate vice chancellor for real property and procurement for the University System of Maryland in charge of these agenda item proposals, decided not to attend the meeting. Hogan said he wants Salt to personally explain these items to the board during its next meeting on March 4.

Salt declined to comment on the situation by phone on Wednesday afternoon, but did maintain that the University System was not asking for budget increases. In an interview with Capital News Service last week, Salt also said the reason for the additional funding was due to market changes.

The board did approve additional funding for Salisbury University for the construction of a new athletic stadium to replace the current Gull Stadium, and for renovations to its athletic fields. Because the university underestimated the original bill, the project will cost $22 million compared to an earlier estimate of $16 million, according to officials’ remarks submitted to the board.

That request went through because university officials were present and able to explain their request.

The board deferred requests to fund these four projects (with costs rounded to the nearest million), and is likely to hear them again on March 4:

--A New Center for Natural Sciences, Mathematics and Nursing at Bowie State University. The new request, for an additional $16 million, means a 23 percent increase from an initial $70 million estimate. The facility will feature classrooms, lounges and research and computer labs in support of the natural sciences, mathematics and nursing departments. This project will mean the Weisman Center and Crawford Science Center are demolished.

--A parking garage at the Shady Grove campus. Its cost rose from $15 million to $17 million. The garage would include approximately 700 spaces.

--A new Academic Commons library at Salisbury would contain space for quiet studying, research and special events, among other uses. The final cost came in at $100 million compared to the original projection of $90 million.

--Lastly, a new Engineering, Aviation, Computer and Mathematical Sciences Building at the Eastern Shore campus features classrooms, technology labs and television and radio studios among other uses. The estimated cost went from $69 million to $71 million.

In other higher-education construction measures the board heard Wednesday:

--Coppin State University also received grants for its new Science and Technology Center, an $80 million building that began construction in 2013. The funds, which total more than $1.4 million, are for scientific equipment.

--In addition, an era in off-campus housing at the University of Maryland College Park will come to an end after the board voted to demolish the last of the semi-detached residences known as “Knox Boxes” on Knox Road in College Park. Students rented the houses since they opened in 1953. The last of the buildings, owned by the university, were no longer usable due to deterioration, officials said. The remainder of the “Knox Boxes” were already destroyed following their purchase by a private developer.

The board also delayed voting on a $20 million maintenance contract to Motorola regarding radio equipment for Maryland first responders. Kopp and others on the board again cited a lack of clarity in the contract’s description on the Board of Public Works agenda. The contract ensures Motorola will fix any dysfunctional equipment until the contract expires in 2017.

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