Seismic retrofit priority: Capitol or at-risk schools?

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

Legislators are charged with making decisions on behalf of the public. This often involves setting priorities in terms of what best serves the needs of Oregon taxpayers.

Many of the decisions we have to make on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee, of which I am a member, regard the use of bond funds to pay for infrastructure projects throughout the state.

When the 2015 regular session begins, the State of Oregon will have between $800 and $900 million in available bonding capacity. Plans are already being made on how to spend those dollars, with a variety of competing interests.

This raises any number of issues. The first is whether it is wise or prudent to essentially max out the state’s credit card. It’s worth noting that the principle and interest payments on lottery and General Fund borrowing already cost Oregon taxpayers nearly $1 billion each budget cycle.

Another is the realization that choices might have to be made between fixing schools and courthouses that are at risk of earthquake or tsunami damage, or on making improvements to the state capitol building in Salem.

A Brief History of Capital Improvements at the Capitol

Oregon’s original capitol building was destroyed by fire in 1855. After being rebuilt, the capitol burned again in 1935, with the current structure being built three years after that. Separate wings for the House and Senate were added in 1977.

The Public Commission on the Oregon Legislature resulted from the 2005 session. That body put out a report the following year recommending that the Legislature create an advisory committee to develop a comprehensive renovation plan for the capitol building. The Capitol Master Plan Development Project was established by the Legislature during the 2007 session.

A renovation of the House and Senate wings took place after the 2007 session, and addressed electrical and plumbing issues, along with replacing the aged carpeting.

According to the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Office, the total amount authorized for the project was $34 million, which was funded through two 15-year bonds.  The state is also responsible for approximately $11.5 million of interest on that amount.

As of today, the state still carries $27.1 million of debt from that project. That includes $22.3 million in principle and $4.8 million in interest.

Plans for the Project

The Master Plan Project began in 2008, with an estimated cost of around $250 million. It is described as a “20 to 30-year roadmap for the future of this historic building that serves as a monument, the seat of state government, and a working office building.” Many different entities were involved in compiling the plan, including state agencies.

Of that $250 million, around $138 million would go towards addressing seismic concerns at the capitol building. This would be achieved through the renovation and rebuilding of the structure’s ground floor.

Much information about this proposed project can be found in the Capitol Master Plan Review Committee report that was presented to legislators and the public in February 2013.

A Close Look at the Current Proposal

Senate Bill 5507 passed during the 2013 regular session, and allocated $34 million to complete the detailed pre-construction planning and design phase of the project. Those processes are currently underway.

The design phase of the project is around 35 percent completed right now. If the project is approved for construction, there will likely be some impacts to the first and second floors of the capitol wings in order to conduct the seismic improvements.

As part of the project, the Legislature would have to be temporarily relocated outside of the capitol building. Estimates provided to the Capitol Master Plan Review Committee state that accommodating a 42-month absence from the capitol could cost approximately $24.8 million in rental and moving expenses.

It is expected that a request for construction funding will be brought forward during the upcoming 2015 regular legislative session.

But as the movement towards doing more work on the capitol moved forward, an entirely different set of critical priorities has seemingly been put on the backburner—including the safety of Oregon schools and courthouses.

The Status of School Structure Safety

The state’s Department of Geology and Mineral Industries, DOGAMI, conducted a seismic needs assessment in 2007. The results showed that 275 school buildings throughout the state were at very high risk of collapsing in the event of a major earthquake, with another 800 rated as high risk and 500 at moderate risk. Furthermore, nine schools on the coast are in the tsunami inundation zone. Many courthouses, including that in Multnomah County, are also in danger of catastrophic collapse.

A recent earthquake in Northern California serves as a reminder that such an emergency could occur at literally any time.

The authority to use bond funds to provide grants for schools exists due to the 2002 passage of Ballot Measures 15 and 16. Those established seismic grant programs for schools and emergency services buildings.

To date, approximately $18.7 million has been spent to rehabilitate 25 schools throughout the state.  Those include Lakeview High School and Mills Elementary School in Klamath Falls. The Legislature approved an additional $15 million for the program during the 2013 regular session.

The Politics of Practical Priorities

The push for improvements to the capitol has been going on for quite some time now. But recent articles in the press have brought attention to the apparent prioritization of fixing the capitol building over bolstering the safety of our most at-risk schools.

In response, new efforts are being made to include school seismic upgrades as part of the bonding capacity discussion for the 2015 session. The prospect of doing both capitol improvements and school seismic upgrades is also being discussed.

My initial response is that we should focus our state’s limited seismic retrofitting resources on public schools and courthouses. The public congregates nearly daily in these vulnerable structures. I do not believe that these people are less important than state legislators and staff.

What do you think? Should the Legislature move ahead with allocating millions of dollars towards capitol improvements, or should schools take top priority? Should the Legislature try to do both, or should we wait until the last set of capitol improvements have been paid off before incurring more debt?

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls