FL MORRIS / FMORRIS@STARBULLETIN.COM
Dorms at the University of Hawaii-Manoa show their age in these photos taken Jan. 30. Hale Noelani has temporary wooden beams supporting the walkways between buildings. CLICK FOR LARGE
UH dorms unsafe, audit says
An audit criticizes construction of new halls at the expense of fixing older sites
» State auditor's findings
University of Hawaii at Manoa students live in neglected, unsafe and mismanaged dormitories, according to a state auditor's report that blasts the UH administration for being preoccupied with building new residence halls instead of fixing existing buildings.
The report, issued yesterday, said living conditions in some dorms and apartments "may be hazardous to student health and safety," citing a lack of sprinkler systems in Johnson Hall, burst pipes and leaks that promote mold growth, and elevated walkways of "questionable stability" in the Hale Noelani apartment complex.
The main section of the 76-page report is titled, "UH Manoa students live in worn and neglected dormitories on an unsafe campus." It suggests that housing fees are too low to pay for an estimated $45 million backlog in repairs needed at UH-Manoa's nine dorms and two apartment complexes.
In addition, State Auditor Marion Higa questioned the awarding of a $71 million contract to design and build the new Frear Hall dorm, suggesting that the university would have received a lower bid, if not for what the report called an "unduly restrictive and unfair" bidding process.
Even with increasing construction costs, Higa estimates the project should have come in closer to $61 million.
University officials said the bidding process was proper.
"We believe it was a competitive, efficient, effective, and fair process," UH-Manoa Chancellor Denise Konan said in a written response to the audit.
Konan also said she "firmly" disagrees that the dorms are unsafe and expressed "strong" disagreement that plans for expanding housing are not justified.
" 'Unsafe' is not accurate and inflammatory," Konan wrote. "The campus is a safe place to study, to live, and to attend events and classes."
Konan also denied that the university was preoccupied with building new housing rather than properly maintaining current dorms, saying UH-Manoa is taking steps to do both.
She noted that the university plans to spend $40 million over the next few years to fix existing dorms.
But the report contends that while there have been two attempts to expand student housing in the last 12 years, the university did not develop a plan for major repairs to existing dorms until late last year.
The auditor also questioned whether the university has considered the effect of expansion at UH-West Oahu will have on the demand for student housing at UH-Manoa, especially because UH-West Oahu also plans to offer student housing.
And the report suggests an increased emphasis on security and safety on campus, including better lighting and giving campus police additional training and the power to arrest people and carry weapons.
It says many dorms do not conduct fire drills as frequently as required, and that hall directors and staff have less than two hours of training in what to do in case of emergencies.
Higa blames many of the repair and maintenance problems at the dorms to turnover in top leadership positions in the student housing office, a lack of staff, inefficient procedures and a lack of money, "which relates to mismanagement."
The housing office takes in about $12.7 million annually and spends about $12.5 million, which doesn't leave much money for repairs, the auditor said.
The auditor said the lack of a comprehensive maintenance program for the dorms has shortened the life of the buildings.
The old Frear Hall closed in 1997 because of inoperable sewer and electrical systems. The building was expected to last 75 years but was torn down last summer after 54 years.
The report said the university has underfunded maintenance at the university every year in the last 12 years, except for 2002.
Dorms averaged about 87 percent occupancy for the fall and spring semesters over the last six years, resulting in an estimated loss of about $4 million a year if the dorms were at least 95 percent occupied, the auditor said.
The poor condition of the dorms and unresponsiveness of the staff also means that people who plan conferences at UH-Manoa during the summer do not use the dorms for housing, which is another potential source of income lost, according to the auditor.
Undergraduate student government President Grant Teichman agreed with most of the auditor's findings, including the finding that some of the dorms are unsafe.
"It's like a house of cards, at least Noelani is. It's being held up by two-by-fours," Teichman said.
He said students will pay more for better facilities if they can be assured the extra money won't be wasted.
"Giving them (the housing office) more money doesn't really inspire a lot of confidence that things are going to change," he said. "It's like pouring water into a bucket with holes in it."
State auditor's findings on management of student housing at University of Hawaii-Manoa
» Damage: Disrepair and long-standing problems in the dorms "distract students from their studies" rather than encourage students to grow and develop.
» Safety: Some dorms and apartments may be "unsafe." The report cited a lack of sprinkler systems in Johnson Hall, leaking pipes that may be contributing to mold growth, and elevated walkways of "questionable stability" at the Hale Noelani apartments.
» Fees: Student housing fees need to be increased and occupancy levels need to be improved to generate money for an estimated $45 million backlog in repairs and maintenance at the dorms.
» Costly: The procurement process to select a developer for the $71 million, new Frear Hall project was "questionable" and may have resulted in the university overpaying for the construction of the new dorm.
» Capacity: The university could be overestimating the demand for new dorm rooms and may be preoccupied with the desire to expand student housing capacity, rather than maintain existing dormitories.
» Crime: UH-Manoa has the highest crime rate among its peer institutions with 5.45 crimes reported per 1,000 students. Police responded to cases at Hale Noelani and Hale Wainani apartments the most frequently among dorms, say Honolulu police statistics.