September 19, 2019

The cost of neglect: Years of deferred maintenance catching up with state

Source: The Journal Record

OKLAHOMA CITY – Lawmakers should consider more than doubling the annual appropriation for upkeep of state-owned properties valued at $14 billion, an executive involved in an extensive renovation of the Oklahoma Capitol said Thursday.

John Semtner, the civic market principal officer at the architecture and engineering firm FSB, joined several state officials who spoke at an informational meeting on the topic of maintenance held at the Capitol. Even as the interim study session was underway, workers were busy just outside the meeting room continuing a major renovation of the interior of the Capitol.

Others who spoke at the session organized by the Senate Appropriations Committee included Dan Ross, who handles capital assets management at the state’s Office of Management and Enterprise Services. He said the state has added to its overall costs over the years by deferring maintenance on buildings and other assets. In times of tight finances, he said program funding often is prioritized over maintenance, but he cautioned that deferring upkeep and necessary upgrades for too long can lead to “snowballing” costs or even to an eventual total loss of asset value. He advised that a proactive approach to maintenance would be preferable to a reactive one.

Gino DeMarco, deputy executive director at the Oklahoma Tourism and Recreation Department, agreed. He told lawmakers that a recent assessment of the condition of 31 state parks across the state revealed significant needs resulting from years or even decades of deferred maintenance. The department is responsible for managing more than 500 buildings comprising about 1.5 million square feet, more than 10,000 acres of forest land, seven golf courses and recreational and other infrastructure at numerous lakes, including five dams. DeMarco said there are “shining gems” in Oklahoma’s parks inventory, but also some assets in “horrible shape” as a result of neglect. Some may not even be worth any additional investment of resources, he said.

Semtner said the state might reasonably appropriate $54.3 million each year for continual maintenance of assets encompassing 87 million square feet. That would amount to an investment of 62 cents per square foot in 2019 dollars. Currently, the state appropriates in the range of $21 million annually for such upkeep, with additional funding appropriated for assets associated with higher education.

Semtner said the work at the Capitol has uncovered aged electrical wiring and plumbing and worn out heating and air conditioning equipment, evidence that maintenance has been deferred over the years even at Oklahoma’s most recognizable building. Much of the building has had to be closed off in order for upgrades to be made. Semtner, Ross and DeMarco all said the state would stand to benefit by investing more annually so as to avoid dealing with total shutdowns of buildings or more costly emergency repairs.

Oklahoma State Capitol Interior Restoration
A worker walks past a scaffold rising in the rotunda of the state Capitol. A major renovation of the interior of the Capitol continued on Thursday as lawmakers discussed problems associated with years of deferred maintenance on state-owned buildings and other assets. (Photo by Steve Metzer)

“(Overall), we’re not really addressing the deferred maintenance we’ve gone through in the last few decades,” Semtner said. “We should be catching up significantly.”

The study session was requested by state Sen. Julia Kirt, D-Oklahoma City, and state Sen. John Michael Montgomery, R-Lawton. The lawmakers said state-owned buildings with a total value of about $14 billion are located all over Oklahoma and serve a variety of stakeholders. The Long-Range Capital Planning Commission, part of the OMES, oversees annual agency capital requests. The Legislature finalizes and approves appropriations for capital improvements and/or bonds.

Kirt said she felt it was important to “elevate the conversation” about deferred maintenance.

“Our current way of planning and budgeting for our buildings is not serving its public purpose,” Kirt said. “Agencies have managed years of budget cuts while trying to keep up their standards of service to the public. In many cases, building maintenance and critical improvements have been delayed.”

Montgomery said his goal for the study was to highlight how facilities management currently works and how improvements might be made.

“This process of asset management will require continual improvement and work going forward,” he said. “I certainly believe this should be a launching pad for multi-stakeholder work to more effectively and efficiently provide state government services with a long-term approach.”

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