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SALT LAKE CITY — Three years ago, state auditors recommended improvements to how lawmakers fund the operation and maintenance of higher education buildings.
But a follow-up audit released Thursday shows they are still falling short of administering those funds with needed transparency.
While many higher education buildings are built with donations and other independent funding sources, the state is often asked to provide funding for the continued operation and maintenance of those buildings. However, operation and maintenance funding sources aren't always identified before the buildings are built.
"It isn't that the Legislature refuses to fund it," said Tim Osterstock, audit manager for the Legislative Auditor General. "In most cases, they didn't even know they needed to fund it. These are buildings that were paid for somewhere else and outside the Legislature's purview."
Osterstock added that operation and maintenance costs end up outweighing those incurred during construction, which may sometimes account for only one-third of costs over a building's lifetime.
The audit, requested by House Speaker-elect Greg Hughes, R-Draper, recommends that the Legislature require all buildings to have a plan in place that identifies funding sources for operations and maintenance before construction begins, including funding sources.
Auditors also call for better record keeping by the Legislature of all public higher education buildings and whether their operation and maintenance funds are provided by the state.
These recommendations are designed to increase transparency and accountability of operation and maintenance funds. I think the fact that (the Legislature) wants us to follow up on it means they continue to have a desire to get this right. I think there's a lot of interest to get this going.
–Kade Minchey, audit supervisor
Lastly, auditors say the Legislative Fiscal Analyst's Office should track funds devoted to operation and maintenance, as they appear as education and general fund line items.
"These recommendations are designed to increase transparency and accountability of operation and maintenance funds," said Kade Minchey, audit supervisor. "I think the fact that (the Legislature) wants us to follow up on it means they continue to have a desire to get this right. I think there's a lot of interest to get this going."
Minchey said the audit was prepared in advance of the Legislative session to give lawmakers time to address all three recommendations. He added that the Office of the Auditor General also plans to revisit necessary changes for higher education institutions.
David Buhler, Utah commissioner of higher education, said institutions provide a "strong commitment" to providing adequate support for operation and maintenance funds when state appropriations are insufficient. For the 2015 fiscal year, aggregate institution budgets for operation and maintenance exceed state appropriations by $27 million, he said.
But when outside funding sources or institutional reallocations come up short, the burden gets shouldered in part by students.
"We certainly do not go to tuition except as a very last resort to cover these costs," Buhler said.
The commissioner said new buildings built with money from private donations are eligible for state assistance, but lawmakers aren't obligated to provide it. And even though private donations for new buildings are plentiful, donations allocated to operation and maintenance are "very, very rare," he said.
"It's very difficult," Buhler said. "Often donors feel that if this is for a state purpose, like a classroom building, then maybe the state ought to help. 'I'll help build the building, and then the state or the university should help take care of it.'"
The audit notes that concerns that operation and maintenance funds are inadequate for Legislature-approved buildings are not substantiated by data.
Buhler also said concerns of buildings falling into disrepair are unfounded.
"We are taking care of these buildings," he said. "Whatever we need to do, we are taking care of them."