DeKALB — Hazardous tunneling systems, 50-year-old boilers and damaged building exteriors are among repairs NIU must make that require funding from the state, something for which officials have desperately been lobbying state lawmakers.
The Illinois Board of Higher Education recommended NIU receive $59 million from the state for capital renewal projects for Fiscal Year 2018, which would fund the replacement of boilers, the repair of stone buildings and the rehabilitation of steam tunnels. John Heckmann, associate vice president of Facilities Management and Campus Services, said officials are in “dire need” of state funding to repair academic buildings around campus.
“Over the past number of years, we have not adequately funded, or have the ability to fund, a sufficient level of repairs,” Heckmann said.
State Rep. Bob Pritchard (R-Hinckley) said the process by which universities go about requesting funds is usually simple but has been made difficult by a lack of state funding in recent years.
“[University officials] would make applications to the Board of Higher Education,” Pritchard said. “The Board then prioritizes all of the university requests and submits that when there is capital funding. There has not been new capital funding for a number of years.”
The state originally approved a $16 billion capital plan for higher education facilities in 2009 under former Gov. Pat Quinn, but only ended up raising $12.7 million in bonds. In September, the yet-to-be-funded projects saw construction projects permanently ended or indefinitely halted, some without ever beginning.
NIU was to use the money from the state capital plan on its renovations to Stevens Hall, which saw construction delayed because of the freezing of capital funding for state projects in 2015 through an executive order signed by Gov. Bruce Rauner. The work stoppage cost the university an extra $2.4 million.
The Division of Facilities Management and Campus Services estimates the university’s maintenance upkeep for academic buildings will cost $10 million a year. University officials do not expect all the renovations to “happen all at one time,” Heckman said.
Heckmann said state lawmakers should focus on investing in schools yearly, not only in big, broken up payments.
“Part of the approach I was pitching to the senators was how much we should get into the pattern of regularly investing in our facilities every year,” Heckmann said. “It would turn out to be $10 million a year just going into our academic and administration buildings.”
Heckmann met with state Sen. Pat McGuire (D-Joliet) and state Sen. Cristina Castro (D-Elgin) on campus Sept. 12 about the need for state funding. Heckmann shared photographs with the senators of damage to academic buildings during the visit.
“It was a plea from us for state assistance, saying how important state funding is to support these repairs, especially for a public university that relies heavily on the state to manage their expenses,” Heckmann said.
Heckmann expressed frustration to the visiting senators about a Sept. 4 Chicago Tribune article reporting that while public universities like NIU didn’t receive full funding from the state for capital renewal projects, private universities received full funding amounting to more than $300 million between 2009 and 2015.
“A private university, in theory, should not be receiving public funding support,” Heckmann said. “In general, it doesn’t match with how we perceive private universities to operate.”
Heckmann said a concern university officials want to take care of is replacing some of the nine boilers, some of which are around 50 years old. The boilers, which help the university produce hot water and heat through steam, are located at the West Heating plant.
“Boilers vary in their life, how long they are expected to operate,” Heckmann said. “These [boilers] are at the end of their life. They either need significant overhaul, or sometimes if there is a question of if overhaul is worth it, you just replace the boilers.”
Another concern is the pipeline steam tunnels around campus. While there is not a high concern it would endanger pedestrians, there could be “significant deterioration” to the tunnels. The streams run under roadways, meaning any serious incident may require roads to be blocked off.
“If we were to come to a point where we see significant deterioration to the point where we are afraid of a collapse happening, we would section off that part of the tunnel and not allow people to drive overtop or walk overtop,” Heckmann said. “We’re not to that point yet, but we’re concerned if we don’t address those issues soon, we may be at that point.”
Sections of Swen Parson Hall are closed off along Normal Road with green plastic fencing to prevent injuries and damage from loose bricks that have fallen off the building.
“We have a particular water infiltration concern there where the stone is separating,” Heckmann said.
Law student Evan Kirk said he attends all of his classes at Swen Parson, as it is home to the College of Law. Kirk said the damage caused a little concern but nothing that should cause panic.
“I’m not too concerned about it if it’s under control, and they’re working on it,” Kirk said.
It is a little concerning that I wasn’t aware of it.”
Along with all of these potential projects, the university is in the early stages of renovating the Holmes Student Center. The project is being funded by Build America bonds.
As for how the state goes about meeting capital project funding requests, Pritchard said the process can get a little more complex, as the state must agree upon a way to split funds.
“It depends on the amount of money the state is validating towards capital projects and what portion of that higher education would get,” Pritchard said. “Then it becomes a very political process.”