Déjà vu all over again?

By Dan Hounsell  

“The states are in dire fiscal straits.” That statement, from a new report from the Council of State Governments (CSG), might startle some people. James Burnson is not among them.

Burnson is physical plant engineering manager for the state of Washington’s Division of Capitol Facilities (DCF), the subject of our cover article this month. The state faces a $2.8 billion shortfall in its 2003-’05 budget, and Burnson is well aware that his department is one of many in the state that are in the crosshairs.

Washington is not alone, as the CSG report documents. Many states face similar fiscal straits, thanks to a number of converging factors, including unfunded federal mandates, higher state spending over the last decade, tax cuts in that same period, and a tobacco lawsuit settlement that might not be the windfall states had hoped.

Predictably, many state officials are reacting with drastic cost-saving measures that include across-the-board budget cuts and department reorganizations. Burnson’s department is likely to face both budget cuts and staff reductions.

As they contemplate strategies to properly maintain a growing stock of facilities on ever-tightening budgets, Burnson and his peers might take a cue from the nation’s K-12 school districts. Decades of underfunded maintenance and repair work on the nation’s public schools left schools in disrepair and managers in many districts struggling to deal with huge maintenance backlogs. Many have done so, but it has taken years of persistence and patience.

Will the situation for state government facilities be a replay of the crisis that beset the nation’s schools? For at least two reasons, the answer is no.

First, government officials and the general public are much more aware of the central role buildings play in both the health and the productivity of workers. Taxpayers are much less likely to put up with government buildings in disrepair.

Second — and maybe more importantly — maintenance and engineering managers in state government have had a chance to learn some survival tactics from their peers in school districts: Monitor costs closely, find opportunities to save, and keep facility executives posted on both the successes in and the challenges of carrying out the maintenance mission in trying times.

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  posted on 4/1/2003   Article Use Policy

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