Wednesday, May 22, 2013
University of Alaska Regents Vote to Ask State for More Funding
The University of Alaska Board of Regents voted Wednesday to request $368 million from the state for the next fiscal year, an increase of 4.1 percent.
FAIRBANKS — The University of Alaska Board of Regents voted Wednesday to request $368 million from the state for the next fiscal year, an increase of 4.1 percent.
The request is part of an overall $924 million operating budget approved by regents. Aside from state dollars, the remaining funding comes from areas such as tuition and the federal government.
Added expenses include salary increases, facility maintenance and repair, operating costs for several new buildings, and a projected 7 percent hike in utility costs. The funding request will be passed on to Gov. Sean Parnell and the Legislature for approval.
The budget includes a greater emphasis on boosting graduation rates at UA by devoting $1.5 million to additional academic advising and tutoring for students. UA President Pat Gamble said early results from such efforts have made it an easy decision to expand the program.
Gamble said the addition may push the “hold the line” budget mandate from Parnell but that it directly targets an area that both UA and the Legislature have eyed for improvement.
“This is not a silver bullet, but we’ve heard such overwhelming evidence … that it’s clearly in our best interest,” he said.
Gamble, who became university president last year, said UA is in a better financial position than most public university systems. He said his goal is to create “a true culture of frugality” at UA and outlined changes such as travel reductions, evaluating the need to fill vacant positions, and restructuring programs to become more efficient.
Regents approved the budget by a 9-1 vote, with Ken Fisher offering the only objection. He said the 4.1 percent increase requested from the state “does not appear to me to be holding the line.” He said more prudent budget-cutting steps should be taken to avoid unsustainable tuition hikes.
Regent Tim Brady responded to those criticisms by saying the UA system shouldn’t be penalized for costs it can’t control, such as climbing utility expenses projected for next year.
“I really believe the administration is doing a fine job of containing costs,” he said. “I see 3 or 4 percent as cost containment.”
The budget also includes a 3.5 percent raise for non-represented UA staff, approved by regents as part of the larger operating budget. That agreement follows a string of deals signed with unionized employees earlier this year.
Several staff members testified about the need for more pay, particularly as a way to offset rising employee costs within the UA health insurance program.
“In many ways I don’t see it as a raise,” said Monique Musick, the vice chair of the UAF Staff Alliance. “It is a compensation adjustment to keep us going.”
Regents also unanimously passed a $202 million state request for capital projects, with the vast majority of those funds dedicated to maintenance and renewal of facilities at the system’s 16 campuses. The budget doesn’t include any new building construction in the year ahead.
UA has struggled to get on top of a $750 million maintenance backlog, and Gamble said steering $137.5 million toward deferred maintenance next year and $50 toward building renewal would help eat away at an escalating problem.
“To break the curve, you’ve really got to put some serious dollars in there,” he said.
The capital budget could have been about twice as big, but a plan floated by Regent Kirk Wickersham to fund new engineering buildings in Anchorage and Fairbanks was ultimately withdrawn. Wickersham said the $234 million project, which is tentatively set for fiscal 2014, should be moved forward a year to address the need for home home-grown engineers in Alaska.
Although Fisher seconded the move, other regents who spoke said UA should live up to a pledge to focus solely on maintenance issues next year. Following a lunch break, Wickersham withdrew his amendment.
Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.