Crowell critical of SEMO's risky funding

Friday, October 14, 2005

University president Dr. Ken Dobbins says construction costs would have gone up if the school waited to build.

Southeast Missouri State University began building its River Campus arts school without the money to pay for it, state Sen. Jason Crowell said Thursday.

"Basically they wrote a check without the money in the checkbook," he said.

University president Dr. Ken Dobbins said the Cape Girardeau school needs $17.2 million in added state funding to help pay off bonds issued to fund construction of the River Campus. Without that state funding, the school could have to charge students an arts fee to cover the cost, Dobbins said.

But he said that's the worst-case scenario. "It is a calculated risk," Dobbins said of the school's decision to rely on bonds to build the arts campus while still awaiting state funding.

For now, Dobbins remains optimistic that the legislature will appropriate the needed money. The project ranks second on the list of capital projects the Missouri Coordinating Board for Higher Education wants funded on college campuses.

With the bond proceeds drawing interest, the university can meet bond payments until July 2007 without additional state funding, Dobbins said. But Crowell questions why the university obligated itself to paying off millions of dollars in bonds without the revenue stream in place to retire the debt.

"That would be like me borrowing money and I never had a job," he said. "I am just saying that is poor fiscal oversight. That is not the way we do things in the state of Missouri," the Cape Girardeau Republican lawmaker said.

Dobbins remains convinced the university was right to start construction rather than wait until all the state funding was in place. Any delay would have added to the construction cost because of inflation, he said.

As it is, Southeast will spend over $49 million to build and furnish the new visual and performing arts school under construction on the grounds of a former Catholic seminary overlooking the Mississippi River in Cape Girardeau. The price tag doesn't include the $1 million cost of a welcome center. Southeast currently is seeking money from the state to fund construction of the center, which would adjoin the planned performance hall on the River Campus.

In proceeding with the River Campus project, Southeast relied on $36.3 million in revenue bonds issued by the Missouri Development Finance Board. Southeast expects city motel and restaurant tax proceeds, university donations and state funding to pay off the bonds.

Crowell worries that other public universities in Missouri might want to follow suit and proceed with their own construction projects without waiting for the necessary state funding.

He isn't sure if lawmakers will appropriate the money Southeast wants.

"I think the university has a lot of explaining to do to the General Assembly," said Crowell.

335-6611, extension 123

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