An incredible amount of candor will be required to address the question of how to deal with an estimated $1.5 billion worth of maintenance that so far has been deferred on state-owned buildings in Texas. That’s one of the main messages from Republicans and Democrats alike on the newly-created Texas Senate Select Committee on Government Facilities.
All members of the panel, including its GOP chairman, said the needs are great and can only be truly met if lawmakers are working with solid facts and figures. Chairman Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, said during the committee’s first meeting that if the heads of state agencies are crystal clear about their needs, they’ll be able to provide reliable intelligence that lawmakers can use to craft long-term solutions. In 2006, the estimate for deferred maintenance was about $400 million and it has ballooned in the years since.
“We'd like to have a successful result for everybody," Eltife said. He also indicated that Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick has told him the committee’s work may be extended past the regular session of the Legislature so they can really dig down into problematic government facilities.
Lawmakers’ pleas for forthrightness come after one newly-elected state agency leader came forward with information about deteriorating buildings that some found quite shocking. In testimony about a month ago to the Senate’s Finance Committee, Texas Comptroller Glenn Hegar said that he wasn’t going to ask lawmakers for the best facilities imaginable but basic sanitary conditions are not too much to request.
Some of the Comptroller’s field offices – which serve almost like diplomatic posts for state government to business owners – are so nasty that it is frankly embarrassing, Hegar said. He described one office building where a women’s restroom was in such bad shape that women were forced to stuff wads of toilet paper into holes in the walls to prevent people from being able to peer in.
Pointing to the condition of the Hobby Building in downtown Austin, Eltife said "it's a disgrace that we have a former elected official's name on the building.” It’s named after former Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby. With a heavy sense of irony, Eltife said lawmakers meet in the “pristine” Texas Capitol while many state employees work in buildings that have been described as deplorable by Hegar and others.
The state leases about 2 million square feet of office space in downtown Austin which is much more expensive for taxpayers than government-owned buildings, Eltife said. He’s filed legislation to build three new state office buildings. The state could be finished paying for those in the next 20 to 25 years, Eltife said. Legislation to build two new buildings died in the 2013 legislative session.
One of the goals of the new committee, Eltife said, should be to come up with a responsible process for funding deferred maintenance that includes checks and balances. One possible solution might be to pass legislation creating an escrow account specifically for that purpose, he said.
Eltife, whose business is commercial real estate, said a privately-owned office building would not operate without money in an escrow account to deal with maintenance issues when they arise. “It’s just a waste of money” not to do it that way, Eltife said. He pointed out that when a roof deteriorates, there is a ripple effect on the overall costs of maintenance because there will be subsequent damage to walls and other parts of the entire structure.
Texas Facilities Commission Executive Director Harvey Hilderbran, who has been on the job for about 6 weeks, told the committee and construction trade groups that he is learning a lot very quickly. Hilderbran said the fact of the matter is that “the definition of deferred maintenance is no maintenance.” He asked lawmakers to take a thoughtful approach to the issue.
“If the agencies don't come before us and give us an accurate picture of what they're enduring, it won't get fixed," said Sen John Whitmire, D-Houston. “I hope this is a fresh start.”