This Is What A $4 Billion Maintenance Backlog Feels Like To A Cal State Worker

Christopher Rooney is a skilled tradesman at CSU Northridge. (Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/LAist)

Aging buildings, coupled with recession-related budget cuts a decade ago, have pushed the California State University system maintenance backlog to nearly $4 billion.

This 282-page report details the maintenance needs at all 23 Cal State campuses. And it's not stuff your neighborhood jack-of-all-trades can do.

Cal State LA needs a $9.5 million seismic retrofit. At Cal Poly Pomona, there's a heating, ventilation and air conditioning project that's going to cost $5 million. Cal State San Bernardino has to upgrade its elevators for safety, at a cost of $475,000.

Then there are the daily, smaller fixes — changing light bulbs, repairing broken water fountains, carpentry work and so on — that are left to about 1,100 rank-and-file trades workers at each campus.

Christopher Rooney is one of them. He's been doing metal work at Cal State Northridge for nearly three decades — including the clean-up after the devastating 1994 Northridge earthquake that did heavy damage to the campus. When Rooney got there, he found the library building's iconic pillars in a jumbled mess.

"I saw, you know, 4-by-2-foot, 2-inch thick metal plates that hold the main structural I-beams, sheared," he said. "Two-inch thick bolts that were just stretched like taffy out of the ground. It was crazy."

WORKING MORE THAN 9 TO 5

Rooney took me on a tour of the campus recently, pointing out projects big and small — and also pointing out that there are not enough workers to get around to all of them.

"We're busy a lot, day in, day out," Rooney said. "I do a lot of overtime because there's just so much work to be done. You know, it'd be nice to have more people, that'd be great."

Much of his time is spent fixing air-conditioning ducts — but whatever the need, if it's metal, he fixes it. Like the time dozens of new metal sports lockers turned out to have a part that wasn't shaved down all the way.

"Nineteen kids cut their fingers on it," he said. "We had to go in there and we had to deburr everything, all 2,500 lockers. It took like three weeks."

Taking care of those projects keeps him from getting around to all the bigger fixes. It's unclear how much of the deferred maintenance work will be done by contracted workers and how much will be done by members of Rooney's statewide union.

CSU Northridge administrators estimate it will cost $77 million in the next five years to get to all the deferred maintenance, renewal and improvement projects — from the $5 million project to replace heating systems to fixing broken locks on bollards, the vertical posts embedded in the sidewalk to keep vehicles off. It's not a quick fix, and that's why there are about 15 bollards around campus that Rooney hasn't repaired yet.

"I need a generator, a welder, a grinder, and all my personal protective equipment, you know, my welding hood, leather gloves, all that," he said. Plus, it doesn't help that the campus' only other metal worker retired recently.

HELP MAY BE ON THE WAY

Proposition 13, on the March 3 ballot, could offer relief.

If approved by the voters, the measure would raise $15 billion for maintenance and construction at public universities and public schools. The CSU system would receive $2 billion of that.

Mike Uhlenkamp, a spokesman for CSU Chancellor Timothy White, said it would be a big boost toward closing the maintenance gap.

"Every once in a while, we'll be able to get some funding for specific projects and the creation of new buildings," he said, "but the dedicated funding, which is hundreds of millions of dollars because of the size and the scale of the university, hasn't really come in over the past two decades or so."

Just keeping ahead of the daily wear-and-tear is a gargantuan task — more than half of the academic buildings in the Cal State system are over 40 years old.

Rooney said he hopes some of that money could go toward pay raises for trades workers. He says funding cuts during the recession have meant no raises for the past eight years.

"You hear the state allots more money to the CSU budget but we don't necessarily see it," he said of his fellow trades workers. "We have a saying around here: 'I'll believe it when I see it on my check.'"

Rooney's union, Teamsters Local 2010 is negotiating a contract for the system's 1,100 workers. They're asking to restore automatic raises, called step increases, that were eliminated for CSU support staff over two decades ago. Governor Gavin Newsom supports restoring those raises.

Cal State says it's committed to keeping good employees.

"We like to pride ourselves on having an affordable high-quality education. Part of that quality comes down to the facilities. It's the staff to be able to maintain those facilities," Uhlenkamp said.

Uhlenkamp says deterioration in facilities has not gotten to the point that the student experience is affected but Cal State wants to make the improvements before it gets to that.