Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Budget Official: "I'm sorry the state is walking away from its commitment to provide a publicly funded education. I think it should."

Ms. Samara Larson is the Assistant Director, as well as the Interim Director of Administrative and Business Operations of Facilities Management. Her dual-role within Facilities makes her the equivalent of a CFO, responsible for the budget and finances of the department. She has held this dual-role for two years, as a part of a decision to cut costs by consolidating the two positions as one more efficient one.

We began our interview with introductory questions, regarding her position at Facilities Management, UCI. She detailed on her dual-position of both Assistant Director and Interim Director of Administrative and Business Operations, a CFO in a sense, as a part of a movement to keep positions within the department as efficient as possible.

Q: Lets start general here, what is facilities management role on the campus at least

A: We do a lot of different things. UCI has grown to the point where its kind of like a small city. Facilities Management is responsible for taking care of the roads, the grounds, just sort of like the city of Irvine is responsible for the city. We maintain the electrical system, we maintain the water system, we make sure that all of the buildings are operating properly, because the university owns all of the buildings on campus, so we do everything from clean buildings daily, to making sure that things get fixed when broken. We have a staff of people who are electricians and plumbers and maintain the air conditioning, we have a skilled trades group who takes care of those sorts of things. We also have a renovations group so that when people on campus want to make changes to a building, we can have a group that will either manage the project with their own forces or will hire an outside contractor, and they pay for that service. We also have a fleet services group that takes cares of the cars and trucks that we need, also we rent out cars and trucks. We have a business operations group that takes care of the billing functions, and the money that comes in and out of the department, the contracts, we have a service desk so that when people call in...they take the request and send someone to take care of it. There are a lot of parts and pieces to what we do. We are staffed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with different levels of staffing, because we have a central plant on campus thats generating electricity and steam and water distribution, so that has to happen all day, every day, every day of the year. Even when the students aren't here...or faculty aren't at home at night, things are operating in the background because it doesn't ever shut off completely

Q: I actually didn't know we had a power plant on campus

A: We do, its over by- you know where the pool is by Crawford Hall? Across from that you can see a big water tank- thats a storage tank that has water in it. Theres a power plant thats next to it, and the reason we have that big water storage tank is- one of the things we're very concerned with is energy conservation and sustainability. We make chilled water, and we make the chilled water at night, because at summertime its cheaper to make chilled water at night than during the day when power is more expensive.

Ms. Larson gave great detail on the tunnel system that runs along ring road, distributing water to all the facilities, and the energy efficiency of the cooling system.

Q: So we're actually self sustaining. Not quite self-sustaining, but in that area

A: Partially. The plant that we built that generates electricity was built just a few years ago, and it can support about 2/3rds of the power needs of the campus. We've also put in solar panels, they generate another megawatt of when the sun is shining we can support a little bit more. Theres a power substation...where we get power from Edison and comes in and distributes on campus.

Ms. Larson confirmed a question as to the Universities energy efficiency, saying that a good deal of the universities energy comes from within the university itself. Ms. Larson quipped about the distraction from the budget issue, but then commented on the importance of energy and utilities on campus, saying that almost half of the state funding goes towards energy costs.

Q: How have the budget cuts effected the abilities and functionality of Facilities Management so far?

A: Its a real challenge for us, because we have a lot of fixed costs that are difficult to change much, energy being one of them. And this campus uses quite a bit of energy, because of all the research labs and things like that, and we have a lot of build space.

Ms. Larson went on to reiterate the high energy costs of the campus, pointing out that the UC system and the energy companies have a system in place where the energy companies help fund projects for reducing energy costs around campus, in addition to rebates in terms of cutting down energy costs. She stressed the UC's dedication to energy efficiency, conservation, and the reduction of greenhouse gases.

Q: Theres this sentiment that the budget crisis is forcing UC's and UC departments to examine their wasteful spending, and are being forced into being efficient. What do you think about these claims?

A: Its unfortunate that theres that perception, because we've always been pretty careful with how we've spent our money, and its one of the reasons that the budget crisis has been so difficult for us, because we haven't felt that theres a lot of waste to cut back on. Facilities has always run a pretty tight budget, we've run at a minimum staffing level, we've made sure we don't have a lot of extra people that we can easily say 'we can do without these people.' Our primary goal is to support the students and the researchers that are on campus in a way that makes sure they can get what they need. Our mission to support the education and research on campus, thats what we're here for. So we make sure that we're doing work that we need to so that those two things can go on. We do it in a way that we hope is as efficient as possible, and we are always looking for ways to improve that efficiency. When our budget gets cut, we're always looking very carefully at what could we cut back on thats not going to impact the ability of the students and the researchers and faculty to get their work down. There's not a lot of room there, and its very difficult to figure out 'how are we going to do that?'

Ms. Larson detailed on how the department looks at how to cut certain areas, postponing projects or cutting back on the scale of projects, cutting down cleaning cycle, or otherwise reducing services that if cut back don't effect the university on a severe scale. She then pointed out the danger of this system – cutting out certain services may cause long term damage depending on how much was cut.

We didn't have a lot of extravagant spending that we could say that “oh we used to send people on trips all the time, and we're just not going to send them on those trips anymore.” You hear a lot in the news papers, whether it be student papers or the general media, about this wasteful spending that we can cut back on. But from our perspective, we're not sure where that was, and we don't have a lot of it that we can cut back on.

Q: You talked about the tradesmen earlier, have they or have other personnel been effected by the budget cuts, the furloughs or the salary cuts?

A: in this department, we've always tried to prioritize our staff so that they are the last people we have to cut. Finding trained, qualified staff is always a challenge. We think our people are very important. A piece of equipment is important and it needs to run right, but if I quit cutting the grass as often and it starts to die back, well I can replant it again, its not the end of the world. But if I let the groundskeeper though, he's lost his job, he's lost his benefits, and his families not going to get taken care of. Thats much more difficult. So if I have to cut somewhere, I'd rather let the grass grow longer...before I let the groundskeeper go.

Ms. Larson commented on the salary cuts, saying that they had already taken effect at all levels of the department. She also commented on the layoffs, saying that there had already been notices of layoffs, despite the Departments best efforts to take care of their employees. While no layoffs have been implemented yet, the future for some of the employees is grim if the budget situation isn't resolved. She clarified after questioning that her department did not have anything to do with the recent custodial protests, pointing out that the custodial staff contracted to Facilities had not been given any notices.

Q: Do you feel like the way the cuts have been applied to each department has been done responsibly?

A: I believe its been done responsibly. The EVC put together a set of budget principles, and he's done a very good job of explaining the rational behind how he's done it. And its a difficult decision for anybody to make, but the university has a set of priorities, and the purpose of the university is to support the teaching and research mission of the university, thats why the university is here. And we are here to support that teaching and research mission. You have to prioritize based on those principles- its the same principles that we use when we make decisions within the department of where we're going to cut within the department. We look at the buildings and we say, “if we're going to operate this building, what do we have to keep in operation in order to make sure that the teaching and research mission continues.” its a difficult decision but its why things like the exterior grounds tends to be cut first, because as nice as it is to have a very esthetically pleasing campus, #1 its one of the easiest things to repair without long lasting damage, and #2 its not a key critical element to the teaching and research mission. You can teach students in the building when there are extra leaves on the sidewalk. I can do the research that this university is here to have even if the rosebushes haven't been cut. You're never going to be happy with situations like that, and any time that the university as a whole loses 77 million dollars- thats a problem. And theres never going to be a good place to cut those things, but I don't know anybody who can do that without causing pain without somewhere in the system. You have to set up a set of guidelines and principles that say 'how am I going to make these decision, and what principles do I use to make those” and apply those consistently throughout the university. And they're always going to be painful .They're never going to be pleasant. And since we end up on the bottom end of them, they are extremely unpleasant for us, but we do understand the basis that they're made on

Q: Just to clarify, at the beginning you said EVC?

A: The executive vice chancellor. That would be Michael Gottfredson.

Q: I know you've heard the claims about the UC system having this billion dollar reserve. Can you comment on that at all?

A: I've worked here long enough that I understand the concept that if you were just to look at it, its just so different than when someone looks at my budget and says, well you have money. But different money gets restricted for different purposes.

Ms. Larson explained at length the money restrictions. Money for a building, she says, must be used for the building only, and cannot be used anywhere else. If the building is made for less, then the excess money is sent back to the funders. She referred to this money as the 'color of money', the way that money is set aside for certain purposes. She rejected the idea that the University simply doesn't want to move the funds around for any reason at all. When asked about a records system, Ms. Larson replied laughingly that there is such a system, but because of the age of the systems and the languages used for coding those systems, the database is very difficult to understand. She made a very strong point that without the knowledge to interpret the information, it would be very difficult for anyone to understand the system. She laughed in response to the question of transparency, saying “Its not even transparent to ourselves!”

Q: Well to wrap this up, lets summarize. State funding has dropped, its been dropping for years. We've gone from free tuition in the 60's to the state paying less than half.

A: I think out of the total funding for the university, the state used to pay about 75% of the total funding. It pays...Gosh I think we're down to 18%. So the proportion of the pie of the overall university that comes from the state that gets smaller and smaller every year, and its a pretty small piece

Q: Theres a worry that as the cost of education is shifted back to the students, that at some point the government will pull out and the UC's will be privatized, and-

A: I'm worried about that too

Q: What do you think the future of the UC system is based on what you've seen now, and the 13 years you've been here.

A: Thats a good question. You have to look at the whole pie, because if you look at that whole 100%, if you look at the percent going to the student is increasing as the state decreases, but its still not the only other source. You've got to remember that too. In that whole pie, you've still got donations, you've still got federal and state research funding, and I think those two pieces, the state and federal research funding have continued to grow at an equal or faster pace than the student fee portion has. Thats a good thing, because if that didn't exist, that pie would look much different, and I think thats something that students often forget. When you look at the pie, don't look at it as just two pieces, state funding and you. There's other funding there. Look at the entire percentage and how that overall picture changes everywhere. So, yes your piece changes, but how does your piece change in comparison to the whole? Because without the rest of that whole, you guys would be in big trouble. If you look at the cal state universities, they're in a much different picture, because they have so much of that research piece, they have almost none of it.

Now the part that UCI doesn't have that the other UC have and other states have that I think we're going to have to look for more of, is that we're missing the endowment. We don't have any real- we have gifts, but we don't have an ongoing endowment, and thats something UCI is looking for. If you look at its fund raising, they've been raising pieces here and there and all around, but they don't haver an ongoing endowment that in and of itself now grows and creates an investment income. Now right now, the market doesn't look that good, investment income isn't that great, but if you looked at a major school, particularly the private schools, but some of the public schools as well, they have endowments, and UCI is looking...trying to raise a billion dollars- thats a lot of money. But they're getting there. If they can create an endowment that has self sustaining income, that will help to offset the loss of other things. So there are other ways to make that whole pie bigger, students aren't the only source, they're never going to be enough of a source. You could double student fees and its not going to make up the difference of what you're loosing in other places, and everybody knows that. Even with student fees where they are though, a UC education when compared to a lot of other things is still one of the greatest bargains you could ever have. Its expensive, theres no question. But you get a lot for what you pay for.

Theres just limits for how far you push those fees before they become completely unreachable for too many people. I personally – you take me out as a UCI employee and you ask my personal opinion- I'm sorry the state is walking away from its commitment to provide a publicly funded education. I think it should. I really think it should be more. But it appears its not going to, and until it steps up to that obligation, then stepping back as a UC employee, we as an organization have to figure out how to deal with that, because I don't think we can operate on less and less money every year. We have to figure out as a business how do we deal with this. So I always have two sides now, I look at it. Because I truly believe the state should support a publicly funded college education for its people. If does that, great. If it doesn't, then as a business, then the UC has to look at it and say “what are we gonna do about that.” we could sit here and say “oh we need the money and thats a real shame and what are we gonna do about that.” We have two choices. UC Irvine can figure out, how can we get smaller so we operate with 77 million dollars less, and I don't think thats the end of it, I think next year we're going to lose more money, so how do we operate with 100 million dollars less, or how do we figure out how to make up that 100 million dollar shortfall.

Q: That was amazing, in short. Thank you very much.

A: You're welcome.

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