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A Modest Suggestion Print E-mail
Written by Alan Kline (admin)   
Tuesday, February 22 2011 20:06


Like many Iowans, I question whether the state's budget crisis is as bad as it seems, considering that we had a surplus before Chet Culver left office. However, saving money with as little pain as possible is always a good thing for government, so here's an idea for Culver's successor, Terry Branstad:

Stop the "New Hancher" boondoggle. The University of Iowa's Hancher Auditorium was damaged by the floods of 2008. For nearly a year, the University's administration waffled between repairing or replacing the structure, part of the complex which includes Clapp Recital Hall and the Voxman Music Building. Finally, in the summer of 2009, the UI decided that the Hancher complex was "destroyed", and began the process of begging FEMA and the Iowa Legislature for replacement funding. UI president Sally Mason began telling the media that the building was destroyed, and the Board of Regents asked the Legislature for $100 million in bond financing to supplement the expected FEMA windfall. The UI and the Regents are trying to take advantage of a loophole in the Federal law which created FEMA, which allows a flood "victim" like the University to apply for an "alternative project" in certain circumstances.

Here's the problem: FEMA has determined that the Hancher complex can be repaired and protected against future flooding. At my request, Senator Charles Grassley's office asked FEMA for confirmation of that fact, and the Senator's office provided me with a copy of their response. It appears, however, that the UI and the Regents failed to provide that information to the Legislature. After the Des Moines Register published a commentary I wrote about the Hancher issue in 2009, I was contacted by a legislator who told me that he didn't know this before the vote to approve the bonding authority. It stands to reason that if one member didn't know, there were others.

The FEMA funding, together with insurance proceeds, would essentially provide the midlife renovation projected for Hancher in the UI's 2006 General Plan--but at little if any cost to Iowa taxpayers. The fact that FEMA approved repair funding also indicates their belief that the building can be protected against future floods, and the University's facilities staff has put forward a plan to do so--a plan that must be built in any event, to protect the structures which will remain in the area.

We simply cannot afford this waste. It's clear to me that Sally Mason, with the tacit approval of the Regents, is not acting in the best interests of UI students. At least three full classes of freshman, and perhaps more, will spend their entire undergraduate career without the benefit of adequate facilities for music and large dramatic productions. The earliest that a new facility could open is probably late 2013. 2014 is more likely. And of course, all this doesn't even consider the tens of millions of dollars of Federal money that the University wants to waste on "New Hancher".

My very rough guess says that the debt service on $100 million of bonds would cost the state $4 or 5 million per year, over a 30-year period. Here's an idea of what that could buy:

  • The passenger rail service which Governor Branstad has rejected;
  • More state troopers;
  • Smaller cuts in purchases for the libraries of all of the Regents' schools;
  • Fewer layoffs at Iowa Workforce Development…

…just to name a few--any of which could be accomplished while continuing to provide a world-class theater and music facility on the Iowa City campus, in the restored, existing Hancher complex.

If the Legislature is still intent on giving the University the bond money, there are millions of dollars in unfunded campus building renovation and life-safety issues which must be addressed. Use the money for that, and repair and renovate the existing Hancher complex with the FEMA and insurance proceeds.

As a proud Hawkeye, it pains me to admit this, but Iowa State University currently has a far more capable leader in its president, Gregory Geoffrey. After the Ames campus was damaged by the floods of 2010, did Geoffrey start pleading and crying for state and FEMA money for a replacement for Hilton Coliseum? Did he spend a year trying to make people think that Hilton was destroyed? No, he didn't. He got his people to work immediately, and the facility was ready to go near the beginning of the fall 2010 sports seasons--not 2011, 2012, or 2013, as Mason might have done. 2010. Geoffrey makes Mason look like a rank amateur.

Governor Branstad should immediately issue an executive order directing the University of Iowa to repair the existing facilities.

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