New campus. Same old problem in search of a Beacon Hill solution.
The physical plant at UMass Boston is undergoing a much-needed transformation. The campus now features a new parking garage, a reconfigured network of newly paved roads, and fresh landscaping. A new dorm, while not glitch-free, is making history as the school’s first-ever on-campus residence hall.
Yet with all that new comes a “legacy debt burden” that totals $421.3 million, and links back to well-documented, shoddy construction issues that undermined the Dorchester campus from its launch in the early 1970s. That debt, plus the cost of addressing shortcomings in the original design and construction of the campus, adds up to a whopping $644.14 million, according to information compiled by the school’s interim chancellor, Katherine Newman. According to Newman, UMass Boston is paying $21 million in annual interest payments on its debt.
That’s a deep hole to dig out of. If Beacon Hill wanted to help, it could factor the debt into capital appropriations for the campus over the coming years and have the state assume the burden. Massachusetts is still making good on Big Dig debt. Why not this?
For decades, state leaders ignored financial troubles at UMass Boston that were spawned by the original sin of Beacon Hill corruption. While past leaders at UMass Boston share responsibility for eroding trust in the budget and planning process — and were enabled by trustees who looked the other way — Newman is working hard to restore faith in the system. She said in an interview that she’s committed to transparency and letting people know “where every dime is going,” as well as “what we feel is the rationale behind every decision.” But even with that commitment, “The debt on this campus is weighing its budget down,” Newman said.
Consider the parking garage situation. The original underground garage was closed in 2006 because of crumbling and falling concrete. Since the original campus was built atop it, however, garage demolition also requires demolition and repair to some of the superstructure. The total bill is $155 million. In 2017, Governor Charlie Baker committed a welcome $78 million toward that sum. But UMass Boston still bears the burden of financing the additional $77.5 million needed to complete the project. To understand how the weight of debt grows heavier, add the $69.3 million cost of a new garage, which was needed to consolidate parking displaced by the crumbling substructure.
“No one in government today is responsible for the debt burden carried by UMass Boston,” Newman said. “Nor can we expect state government, with the myriad cost pressures it faces, to write a check wiping out a debt that has taken years to accumulate. Our hope is that all stakeholders can work out a plan to reduce the debt burden over time, and we look forward to that conversation and that process. We also understand that UMass Boston must do its part as part of that plan by continuing to achieve efficiencies and by improving our fund-raising among donors and business leaders.”
The current leaders on Beacon Hill didn’t lay the foundation for UMass Boston’s woes — but their predecessors did, and that creates institutional responsibility. Baker and the legislature should begin the conversation Newman is asking for, and find a way to help the campus dig out of its fiscal hole.