Dorm Warning

Plagued with major maintenance and financial problems, ASU's decrepit residence halls fail to make the grade

ASU's Manzanita residence hall is a 15-story salute to the wondrous versatility of duct tape.

The tape is two and three layers thick on ducts located in the bowels of this 37-year-old modernist nightmare. Electrical and plumbing machinery and conduits are cobbled snarls of gray tape, red rust and black muck. If some critical piece of infrastructure isn't taped, it's caulked, clamped, puttied or MacGyvered with whatever was cheap and handy at the time.

Upstairs where 900 students live, a fresh coat of paint masks plaster walls bulging and blistering from water damage. One of this year's record number of broken pipes flooded 20 rooms over Christmas break, a problem discovered by a passing security guard who noticed a new waterfall flowing from the building. With new paint, walls take on the creepy texture of cheap makeup caked on a bad case of freshman acne.

The tower's four elevators rarely all work. In recent months, three of the four have been down at one time, creating 100-foot-long lines and 15-minute waits at the lone elevator. Students are regularly trapped between floors in the cramped, grated-steel cars -- an intimate ambiance one student described as "being thrown in an isolation cell." A national elevator service company ranks all four of the Manzanita elevators in its Top 50 most-serviced elevators in the country.

Slumming may be an honored passage in the college experience, but in the past year, Manzanita and several other ASU dormitories have gone beyond bohemian chic to become sinking ships. Maintenance crews from Residential Life, an ASU auxiliary, have suffered through a record number of pipe breaks, roof leaks, elevator failures, power outages and cooling and heating breakdowns.

Now, maintenance coffers are the emptiest they've been by the month of January -- halfway through the university's fiscal year -- meaning more critical maintenance than ever will probably have to be deferred to the next budget cycle -- if it's ever done at all.

"We're going down," says Herb Heritage, who is in charge of maintenance for ASU's residence halls. "We've just reached a point where we've begun losing the fight to keep up with these buildings."

The culprits apparently are penny-pinched administrators who, while doing an increasingly bang-up job of recruiting, educating, counseling and retaining freshmen, have neglected the nuts and bolts of housing them.

Besides ignoring the blue-collared Cassandras in dorm maintenance, who have been predicting this crisis since the 1980s, administrators also are mostly ignoring a 1998 confidential maintenance management audit that showed ASU's 39 residential buildings to be short on nearly $37 million in maintenance. The auditors from Vanderweil Facility Advisors in Boston gave ASU 11 major suggestions for bringing the halls up to snuff. Maintenance managers say none of the recommendations has been implemented.

ASU's vice president for student affairs, Christene Wilkinson, who oversees Residential Life, did not return calls from New Times.

The auditors found that hall maintenance was grossly underfunded, grossly understaffed and operating without a preventive maintenance program. The halls still have no preventive maintenance program and staffing levels and funding have remained virtually the same since the 1998 report.

"They've come up with great programs for the kids, and that's great, but at the same time the Department of Student Affairs has been ignoring our reports to them that our buildings are in trouble," says Dennis Howe, another Residential Life facilities manager. "We're getting $2 million a year to patch up what we've been told is $37 million in major problems. It has never added up. And now we're seeing the effects."

Several facts of Residential Life are at the heart of the problem, maintenance officials say. The majority of ASU's dorms were built in the boom years of the 1950s, '60s and '70s and now are either approaching or have passed their due dates for major overhauls.

And some of the buildings are just plain lemons.

Preventive maintenance could have delayed major renovation, but preventive maintenance, they say, was neglected to free money for student programs within a uniquely constricted budget. Residential Life is funded solely by student rent. Those payments have been kept artificially low to keep college affordable and to draw freshmen to residence halls where they can benefit from a more structured and nurturing environment.

Heritage says the problem was compounded in the early 1990s when ASU's residence halls dropped to 60 percent occupancy during Arizona's recession. The halls' maintenance crew of 23 was cut to 11. Instead of having in-house tradespeople, residence hall maintenance supervisors were to use ASU's facilities management personnel.

The cost-saving measure has backfired as facilities have deteriorated, Heritage says. For example, he used to pay an in-house electrician $27,000 a year. Now he pays ASU's facilities management personnel $30 an hour. If an ASU tradesman isn't available, which is becoming increasingly common because of high turnover in that department, he must call a private tradesman, which often costs $60 an hour.

"With things constantly blowing up around us, we're spending $60,000 in hourly fees where we had paid half that for our own person," he says.

At the same time, the remaining maintenance staff is now often tied up with time-consuming, reactionary work such as fixing the holes made after plumbers or electricians get to the source of leaks and shorts behind walls. This school year, maintenance officials estimate they have patched up more than 500 holes in residence halls' ceilings and walls. And as pipes continue to deteriorate, the number surely will rise.

Feeling ignored by ASU, maintenance supervisors say they have begun approaching Arizona legislators about the dire conditions in the halls. They say they soon hope to meet with Representative Laura Knaperek, who chairs the House Appropriations Committee, about diverting some of the state's budget surplus to shore up the university's dorms.

"I have no idea what will happen to some of these older buildings if something isn't done," Heritage says. "At some point down the line, we will be approaching some major safety issues. I'm really not looking forward to the next couple years with things as they are."

Contact the author at his online address: robert.nelson@newtimes.com

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