Paying for the fire academy

Students may be forced to pay for the Elko muck-up—or, regents say, the university could start selling off assets

The University of Nevada, Reno, owes some folks a tidy chunk of money for its Fire Science Academy built two years ago in Carlin near Elko. For the past year, the campus has been in financial limbo—losing millions a year in operating costs and then being slammed with the need to fix design faults that led to environmental contamination.

UNR stopped making payments. Lawsuits ensued over who’d have to pay to make things right.

This past summer, university President John Lilley negotiated a settlement with contractors. Design flaws were fixed. The fire academy is offering courses for spring. Now it’s time to start paying UNR’s share of the damage. The university system Board of Regents will take up the issue at a meeting in Las Vegas this week.

They’ll be deciding how UNR will foot this bill in these times of dire budget crunches. Lilley took the issue to a group of students Thursday, hoping that they’d support paying an extra $2 fee per credit hour next fall to help pay the $30 million tab for the 2-year-old, $27 million project. UNR must begin making payments on the academy by May or default and end up back in court.

“I’m asking you to step up to the plate to address this emergency situation,” Lilley told students.

But at least two university system regents suggest that the UNR Foundation may be able to help out by selling off some of its other assets, like the Whittel Mansion at Lake Tahoe.

The fire academy, which operated successfully for almost three decades in Stead, has been fraught with problems since it moved to new quarters in 1999. First, the academy was poorly marketed to its target students in California. The location was now also a greater distance for potential students to travel. In 1999, planned enrollment was short by 1,700 students. Operating expenses that year were $5.2 million; revenue was only $2.1 million. The $3.1 million shortfall hurt.

As if that weren’t enough, a year ago, environmental flaws in the facility’s design were discovered. Hazardous materials were leaking into the groundwater and soil.

The mess was still not settled when UNR President Joe Crowley stepped down from his position. In an interview last year with the RN&R, Crowley said he regretted moving forward too fast with the Fire Science Academy and several other projects.

“I’d gotten to the point where I thought we could do all these things,” Crowley said in January. “And each is a valuable project. But you have to look at what’s doable, not just what you want to do. I got to feeling a little heady—'Of course all these good things can happen before I go.’ “

The fastest way for the university to meet its debt obligation is to look toward student fees, Lilley said. Despite the grim short-term outlook for the facility, he told students, the university intends to develop a plan to make the academy profitable. The fire academy’s Web site sports a class schedule for the spring semester—and a list of available administrative positions at the facility.Getting state and federal funding for the bailout will take time, Lilley said. State lawmakers will not meet again until 2003. Also, money slated for UNR’s planned new library construction could be jeopardized, Lilley warned.

“If we were to go into this today, we would have made another decision,” Lilley said. “As president of this university, I have to play the cards I have been dealt.”

Matt Wolden, student body president, and Carlos Ledon, president of the Graduate Student Association, joined Lilley last week. They say they aren’t happy with the proposal. They will ask regents to spread the fees on all students in the University and Community College System of Nevada.

Asking UNR students to pay for the academy is bad enough, but asking students at other university system institutions is unfair, said UCCSN Regent Steve Sisolak of Las Vegas.

“Why should students at UNLV and TMCC pay for it?” he asked. “Had it been successful, UNR wouldn’t have shared the profit.”

Regent Mark Alden said similar problems could occur somewhere if regents don’t improve their oversight capabilities.

“We don’t have the staff to check up on all of these things,” he said. “The same thing could happen at the [UNLV] dental school if we’re not careful.”

Both Sisolak and Alden have suggested that UNR and the UNR Foundation should look at the possibility of selling off campus real estate holdings, like the Whittel Mansion at Lake Tahoe.

UNR officials scoff at that idea, citing the damage that could be done to the university by diverting money donated for specific programs to bail out the fire academy. President Lilley told students that if foundation funds are used, some donors would likely discontinue their contributions to the school.

Regent Howard Rosenberg, a UNR art professor, is concerned that, if any property were sold, the university would not receive a fair market buy because potential buyers would know the university was desperate. He also balks at the idea of shifting the costs to all students in the UCCSN. “This is a UNR problem, not a system problem,” he said.

He has proposed that senior UNR faculty and staff donate part of their salaries. Rosenberg has offered to donate 1 percent of his salary, about $800 a year, to fund student programs.

“If the kids are going to get stuck paying for this, then I think we should contribute something," he said.