Call it the “Revenge of the Blob.” Featuring a not-so-all-star cast of Gov. Mike Easley, Senate Pro Tem Marc Basnight, House Cospeaker Jim Black, and a host of supporting players in North Carolina’s legislature, the riveting drama of an insatiable monster running amok is now playing at N.C. Central University.
The blob is mold. Some strains of it, such as black mold, are toxic to humans. Innocently enough after it was born, the blob hid away in the darkest reaches of the mother ship’s infrastructure. In the university’s case, it was the steam heating system, the victim of years of budget cuts and lack of maintenance.
Eventually, the mold was discovered in 14 buildings on campus. Two of the university’s newest dormitories, only four years after they opened, and three other buildings have been closed. A consultant’s report said NCCU must gut and completely rebuild the dormitories’ interiors. A total of 900 students displaced by the closings were transferred to hotels in the Durham area.
The total estimated repair bill: as much as $27 million.
Like North Carolina’s chronic over-spending problem, maintenance at the university, and other state buildings, was ignored for years by the captains of the ship of state. The day of reckoning has come at NCCU. No doubt, it will reappear quickly in many other state buildings.
Former NCCU Chancellor Julius Chambers, in an interview with the News & Observer of Raleigh, confirmed that state leaders neglected the university’s plight. “The state knew that that school had some major building problems. We went to the state budget committee, the state legislative leaders. We went to the governor. We pleaded for money for repairs, and we didn’t get it,” Chambers said.
Jeff Davies, vice president for finance for the 16-campus UNC system, told the N&O he wasn’t aware of mold problems at other universities. But, he said, problems arising from lack of funding for maintenance could surface elsewhere. “We haven’t had repair and renovation money for three years now,” Davies said. “We all participate equally in the budget crisis.”
Signs of neglect have surfaced at a few other state buildings. The State Capitol, of all places, bears the shameful evidence of state leaders’ irresponsibility. Plaster in its dome, soaked by rainwater that leaked inside, cracked and fell into interior walkways. Some of the falling debris reportedly narrowly missed visitors to the Capitol. Now, contractors hired through emergency funding are busy repairing the damage.
The Department of Health and Human Services says it needs $238 million for repairs and renovations for its facilities throughout the state. The state budget office says the Department of Justice and Public Safety needs about $106 million immediately for property repairs. A State Auditor’s Office report in May said the state should build three new juvenile prisons because its five existing ones are safety and security hazards.
Estimates by the State Construction Office show the extent of the maintenance backlog. Nearly $1.3 billion is needed for repairs and renovations on its properties. The recent trend of robbing the state’s Repair and Renovation Reserve began in 1999 when Hurricane Floyd ravaged North Carolina. In 2000, $60 million of the $150 million allocated for the reserve was redirected to hurricane relief. In 2001, Easley reverted to the General Fund $39.5 million of the $100 million from the reserve.
The next year, the legislature earmarked $125 million for the reserve, but $116.4 million was reverted to help balance the general budget. Of the remaining $8.6 million that was spent on repairs in 2002, $7 million paid for security upgrades at state administrative buildings in Raleigh and $1.6 million paid for an air-conditioning system at the Museum of the Albemarle in Elizabeth City, another of Basnight’s pet projects. The legislature allocated no money for repairs and renovations in fiscal 2003. For fiscal 2004, it set aside only $15 million for repair work.
Budget crisis? All of the cuts in repairs and renovations were made while state leaders fattened politically favored programs and created others. Overall, state government spending will grow by 3 percent in fiscal 2003-04 and by 5 percent in fiscal 2004-05 after growing at this rate or higher in most of the past few years.
The tragedy unfolding at NCCU stands as a monument to chronic fiscal irresponsibility at the highest levels of state leadership. Sadly, it also appears to be only the opening act of horror awaiting the state in general.
Those responsible for bringing disrepair and disgrace on North Carolina should be held accountable. In the next election, voters who choose to ignore the crying need for fiscal reform can expect to watch the blob devour the rest of North Carolina, a la California.
Richard Wagner is the editor of Carolina Journal, newspaper of the John Locke Foundation in Raleigh.