“Turkey” label may mean veto for USF projects

The future of three USF projects will likely be decided by the end of May when Gov. Jeb Bush flexes his veto power and cuts line items from the state’s $63.9-billion state budget.

If recent years are any guide, proposals of $7 million for land expansion, $1.8 million for renovation of the HMS building for the School of Architecture and Community Design and a $1-million proposal for a visual/performing arts teaching facility may well be axed. Tallahassee watchdog group Florida Taxwatch has included the three proposals among those it is recommending that the governor veto. According to a report in the St. Petersburg Times, Bush has vetoed up to 80 percent of items identified by the group.

“Those are all examples of projects that did not go through the established procedures,” said Harvey Bennett, vice president of communications for Florida Taxwatch. “They were not approved by the Board of Governors, they were not on a three-year project priority list, and they were not in the governor’s budget.”

Each year Florida Taxwatch highlights proposals that it considers to be a poor use of taxpayers’ money. The private non-profit group bases its list, which it labels as “turkeys,” on whether the item has had sufficient scrutiny by the Legislature, benefits only a narrow section of the population or interest group or is a low-priority item leapfrogging over higher prioritized ones.

“It’s a very lazy way of approach to what they consider to be their watchdog function,” said Jeff Muir, vice president of Legislative Affairs.

With 11 universities requesting funds and only a projected $200 million allocation, the BOG holds the difficult job of assigning priority to each individual university’s request.

“Instead of having eight requests from each university, (the BOG) will have one or two (on their list),” Muir said.

Three of the USF projects on the BOG list include infrastructure funds to care for existing buildings, the planning of a science and technology facility at USF St. Petersburg and Phase I of construction for the new Lakeland campus.

The biotech land acquisition, renovation of the Architecture Department and new teaching facility for the Fine Arts Department were not included on the list, but Muir says the Legislature will most likely fund more construction projects than are on the BOG request list.

The three projects will total $10 million, and USF officials have urged Gov. Bush not to veto the items. On Friday, USF President Judy Genshaft met with the governor to highlight various health and safety issues through photographs of the current fine arts building.

Constructed in 1963 to accommodate 100 students, FAH no longer provides a sufficient environment for members of the music department. Mold and asbestos, cramped conditions and water leakage are the norm, which is cause for concern, according to Music Department Director Wade P. Weast.

“We are going to start to lose faculty. We are already losing good students that come here for their auditions,” Weast said. “We already have seen that one person is leaving and another has threatened to leave. I think a large part of that is the building.”

If the governor vetoes the project, Weast believes the university will have to start again next year and make radical changes based on what they believe the governor will fund.

A veto of the renovation of the HMS building will leave USF’s Architecture Department in a similar predicament.

If Bush approves their proposal, the architecture school will move into the HMS building, thereby eliminating the department’s tenant status. The school rents space at University Technology Center I.

“As I know, we are the only school within the university that is in rented space,” adjunct professor and USF alumna Beverly Frank said. “We just can’t exist in this space anymore. There’s not enough space for the students that we have.”

For Frank, the $1.8 million needed to begin renovation of the HMS building is only a first step toward getting the school a permanent home.

“We pay about $250,000 a year in rent,” Frank said. “We’ve been here for 15 or 16 years, so if that money had been put toward a bond to actually build a building, then we could have actually had a building by now. Instead, we are paying rent on a facility that is completely inadequate. That was one of the reasons why HMS was a good short-term solution, because instead of paying rent, that money can now go toward a permanent home.”