Whether as an unspoken act of penance or as acceptance of reality that it was unlikely to get funded, the University of Central Florida on Wednesday withdrew its longstanding request for $20 million of state construction money for a major renovation of its Engineering 1 building.
Misty Shepherd, UCF’s interim vice president for administration and finance, surprised the Florida House Higher Education Appropriations Subcommittee Wednesday by announcing the withdrawal of the university’s request for legislative authorization for $20,379,277 Public Education Capital Outlay money to address deferred maintenance for the 30-plus-year-old building serving the school’s biggest college.
Shepherd said the request was withdrawn because the Florida Board of Governors was not forwarding the project on its PECO priority list this year. She did not say anything to imply that the university was, or was not, pulling the proposal in part as an act of penance in response to the misspending scandal. That scandal has revealed UCF had misspent $50 million on construction projects in recent years, including $38 million on the unauthorized new Trevor Colbourn Hall building, bringing outrage from Florida legislative leaders, and leading to several resignations and firings in the university’s leadership.
But Committee Chair Randy Fine and other members of the committee seemed to accept the move Wednesday as a welcome act of penance.
In a meeting of the committee last month, Fine had expressed anger over UCF’s spending habits and declared, in a statement he later walked back as a joke, that he would consider closing the university because officials there did not seem to appreciate the seriousness of the scandal.
Since he made those statements, and as an investigation has progressed by another House committee, UCF Board Chair Marcos Marchena and UCF President Dale Whittaker both resigned. The House Public Integrity and Ethics Committee is slated to meet Thursday to conclude its investigation.
“When we met a few weeks ago, it seems like months or years in this process, you heard me make comments that indicated that I did not believe the university had an adequate situational awareness of the severity of the situation,” said Fine, a Republican from Brevard County.
“What I would like to say is since that meeting, with the resignation of the board chair, the resignation of the president, the decision to hold off on a golden parachute, and I think even your actions today, at least indicate to me we’re moving in the right direction on the situational awareness of the severity of the situation.”
The Engineering 1 building was the only request UCF had on the PECO list. It had been on the list for at least 10 years awaiting funding, and only got money once, $3.6 million in 2014, which has mostly been spent.
Fine expressed both amazement and appreciation that UCF pulled the request.
“My understanding is never has a project, once on the PECO list, been taken off the PECO list,” Fine said.
Shepherd made it clear that UCF still thinks the building needs major renovation, particularly to convert space into desperately needed lab space. But the university simply is not going to ask for the money she said.
Still, she left open the possibility that could change after the university emerges from an administration transition and the conclusion of investigations into its misspending.
“We will address the critical deferred maintenance needs as part of our repairs and renovations. But we’ll revisit asking for a new request at a later date,” she said. She acknowledged that a future attempt to renovate the building likely would have a much higher price tag.
Fine, Democratic state Rep. Carlos Guillermo Smith of Orlando, whose district includes UCF, and Republican state Rep. James Grant of Tampa all tried pointedly to get Shepherd to explain why the project was being withdrawn, but she would not bite, answering only that the Board of Governors was not advancing it.
UCF Interim President Thad Seymour sat next to her but did not speak.
“It appears to me that you are withdrawing the request from the PECO list not because there is no longer a need, but because you are simply not asking for PECO funding,” Smith said.