The State Worker

Four reasons California state building upkeep lags

The five-building Capitol Area East End Complex at 15th and N streets, covering several blocks, is among the 58 state buildings requiring regular maintenance to avoid catastrophic failures.
The five-building Capitol Area East End Complex at 15th and N streets, covering several blocks, is among the 58 state buildings requiring regular maintenance to avoid catastrophic failures. Sacramento Bee file

If California’s 58 state buildings were people, a quarter of them would be old enough for AARP and nearly half could draw pensions based on at least 30 years of government service.

Many suffer the aches of age: Maybe the plumbing doesn’t flow like it used to. Or the wiring needs a good once-over. Or the roof needs replacing instead of a patch.

But the Department of General Services has put off the work for years, according to a new report, stacking up at least $138 million in deferred maintenance projects. The cost will only grow without a plan and the political will to fund it.

The state’s attitude toward keeping up property has been like a someone with high blood pressure who figures, “Why should I visit the doctor or take medication? I don’t feel that bad. And besides, I’ve got other stuff to spend money on.”

Of course, that kind of thinking can ease you right into the back of an ambulance, or turn an undone air-conditioning system tuneup into a full-blown HVAC breakdown on a 110-degree day. Procrastination breeds predicament.

How did we get here? The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s report highlights four reasons:

Staffing: The state has trouble hiring and holding on to stationary engineers, the physician corps for big buildings. Last year, 16 percent of those state positions went unfilled. In the Bay Area and Southern California, the vacancy rate was 30 percent. The reason, according to the LAO, is that state pay for those high-skill, high-demand positions isn’t competitive. Furloughs also chewed into time allotted to routine maintenance.

Money: In a bit of one-pocket-to-the-other financing, departments lease space from the state. The funds pay down property debts and cover maintenance. During the recession, the state significantly cut lease payments to help departments out. The state still hasn’t restored many rents to their prerecession pricing.

Contracting: Got an office that needs painting and no one to do it? Bringing in a contractor for a quick job still requires “writing detailed specifications, preparing a request for proposal and reviewing bids,” often by the stationary engineers who are already pressed for time, the LAO says. Why bother?

Priorities: For the 17 months that ended November 2014, more than 40 percent of preventive maintenance jobs on 35 state buildings were pushed back or left unfinished. Some tasks are like that blood-pressure medicine: Handle it now or face a crisis later.

Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed $5 million next year for deferred maintenance and his administration is working on a plan to manage state properties better. Good idea, but it’s not enough. The LAO figures it would take more than a decade to catch up on everything if Brown and future governors committed twice that much per year.

Meanwhile, the buildings get older. More aches. More pains. More money.

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043. Sign up for State Worker email alerts at www.sacbee.com/site-services/newsletters.

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