Time to tackle maintenance backlog

Feb. 06, 2013 @ 04:26 PM

Whether you own a home or a business – especially a small business – chances are at some point you’ve faced this dilemma:

Money’s tight, the checking account is grazing bottom at the end of the month – and the roof leaks.

The temptation – sometimes the necessity – is to postpone the roof repair until times are better. Meanwhile, the leak gets worse and, if your luck is really lousy, eventually a section simply collapses.

That’s been state government’s situation for years, intensified by the Great Recession.

Gov. Pat McCrory wryly called attention to the problem recently by noting an electrical fire in a downtown Raleigh state office building. No one was hurt, and the fire – caused by overheated equipment – was quickly put out.

“We’ve got to put out some short-term fires,” the Associated Press quoted McCrory as saying. “I didn’t mean it literally.”

With maintenance budgets sapped by years of underfunding, many state offices reek of neglect. “You walk into some of our buildings and literally the smell of mold throws you back,” Aldona Wos, secretary of the Department of Health and Human services, told the AP.

The Department of Administration says the backlogged maintenance bill is more than $5 billion. That’s equal to about one-fourth of the state’s annual operating budget. And with just $70 million allocated for maintenance since the recession deepened in mid-2009, the tab is only growing larger by the year.

McCrory says attacking that backlog should be a priority, and he’s right. Maintenance deferred is, at best, maintenance made more expensive. And government efficiency, not to mention the health and safety of workers, suffers.

“Before we build any new buildings, we’ve got to take care of some of the existing buildings and make sure, first, they’re safe for employees and make sure we have sufficient security in pace for information systems,” McCrory said.

With a majority in the legislature loathe to increase revenue, the solution will not be easy. Despite legislative reluctance, a bond issue to help climb the maintenance mountain with borrowed money may be the most prudent approach.
Durham a few years ago concluded it had to borrow money to finally catch up on its shamefully paltry street-maintenance program, and our streets are vastly improved because of it. Officials vowed once that was done not to skimp on annual allotments to keep streets properly paved.

That’s a model from which state government could well take a lesson.