Doing More with (Much) Less

Drastic cuts in Washington state’s budget prompt the Physical Plant Engineering Department to revisit its priorities in order to operate more cost-effectively

By Dan Hounsell  

Like it or not, maintenance and engineering managers working for state governments these days are the embodiment of the adage to “do more with less.” After several years of budget deficits that often are in the billions, state officials continue to slash budgets in many areas of state operations, and one budget they inevitably look at early in the process covers building maintenance.

James Burnson, physical plant engineering manager for the state of Washington’s Division of Capitol Facilities (DCF), understands this dynamic all too well from past years’ budget deliberations.

“We’re pretty much bare bones now because of the hit we took last year,” Burnson says. Planned budget cuts in the state’s next two-year budget — in response to a $2.8 billion shortfall — are likely to only complicate the efforts of Burnson’s operations.

“We’re able to meet basic needs,” he says, referring to both maintenance tasks and customer satisfaction. “But it will be difficult to meet one of our strategic goals of improving customer service by 10 percent if we delay any projects due to lack of manpower.”

Burnson faces a daunting task of not just doing more with less but doing much more with much less. His department faces the very real prospect of a smaller budget — and a smaller work force, as well — all while maintaining buildings properly and taking on three additional major projects.

Maintenance missions are rarely easy to carry out in institutional and commercial facilities. Facilities age steadily, work forces turn over, and products and equipment require regular repair and eventual replacement.

While such challenges are common in all types of facilities, they often are the most acute for government organizations, where politicians and taxpayers largely determine the shape and size of budgets, and where there is never enough to go around.

In recent years, state governments have seen a rise in budget shortfalls as unfunded federal mandates, spending increases in the 1990s, and a smaller-than-anticipated tobacco lawsuit settlement have conspired to undermine state’s fiscal health. In such cases, budget cuts are inevitable, and maintenance and engineering departments are among the early targets.

Challenge Upon Challenge

As if an aging stock of facilities isn’t enough by itself to keep Burnson and his staff awake at night, they must contend with several other major challenges that require commitments of time, effort and money.

First, the state’s capitol building is in the middle of a $117 million renovation. The key goals of the renovation are to upgrade the mechanical and electrical systems and to repair damage from a February 2001 earthquake, Burnson says.

Among the unique challenges complicating the project are preserving the historical nature of the building, removing abandoned in-place infrastructure, and addressing the discoveries of asbestos in the building.

“Our role has been to manage the air monitoring and asbestos-removal portion of the project, as well as the normal plan review and input,” he says.

Second, state facilities continue to recover from the 6.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the area in February 2001 and caused $18 million in damage.

“Most buildings received some damage, but there were no collapses,” he says. “There was significant damage to the capitol dome and the general administration building, such as large wall and floor cracks.

“We are roughly 50 percent complete with repairs. My department has been doing most of the minor repairs, such as patching and painting cracks and securing bookcases.”

Third, Washington state facilities, like many around the country, continue to upgrade their security systems to prevent terrorist attacks and other problems. While Burnson acknowledges the need for such upgrades, he also says that the time and resources required to make such changes — installing security cameras and fiber- optic cameras — take time away from other essential maintenance and engineering activities.

“It’s really a matter of manpower,” he says. “There is a greater need for these projects than there are resources to carry them out.” Among the security-enhancing projects vying for time and resources are the installation of such key components as cameras and monitors in and around state facilities, Burnson says.

Money Matters

Dictating everything, however, is DCF’s $28 million, two-year budget, out of which comes Burnson’s budget of about $7 million. Predictably, Washington state’s financial problems have prompted state officials to look at DCF’s budgets for potential cuts as one remedy for the shortfall. Burnson’s department has made organizational changes to accommodate anticipated cuts.

“We are consolidating the operational support program in the other three programs with DCF to cut some management positions and have decreased energy use by 17 percent this past year, and we are working on using reclaimed water in our cooling towers and campus irrigation system,” he says. “This, along with other supply efficiencies, have reduced our budget by $600,000, but we will most likely need to save an additional $900,000” in the next two-year budget.

Two Steps Back

Burnson also acknowledges that the budget cuts will make his and his department’s challenges tougher in two additional ways.

First, Burnson says, in recent years his department had been in the process of extending its reach for maintenance and engineering services — such as producing card keys and facility signage — to outlying state facilities that had asked for support for services.

“Now, all of a sudden, we’re shifting gears,” he says. “Our customers are used to coming to us for those needs.”

Second, any funding for new technology to support the maintenance mission are apt to get the axe, and getting them back in a future budget will be tough.

“We have the money in the budget for six Palm Pilots,” he says. “But if that funding goes away, I don’t know where we’ll find any funding in the future.”

Department At a Glance

The responsibilities of the state of Washington’s Physical Plant Engineering Department are wide-ranging, encompassing everything from HVAC systems, construction and power distribution to exterior building maintenance, the paint shop, grounds care and environmental services. To carry out the department’s mission, James Burnson, the department’s manager, directly oversees 55 of Division of Capitol Facilities’ 218 employees. Two other departments in the division handle some maintenance tasks and custodial services.

The high-profile facilities Burnson’s department oversees are just as diverse as his areas of responsibilities: 33 buildings — including the 80-year-old capitol building — with 4.6 million square feet of space. The department also recently took responsibility for another 10 leased buildings that house state offices, and they maintain 160 landscaped acres, a 290-acre lake, and 25 acres of paved plazas and walkways.

— Dan Hounsell

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  posted on 4/1/2003   Article Use Policy

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