Nixon releases $2.4 million in MOHELA funds for SEMO autism center

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Southeast Missouri State University didn't get much further than the groundbreaking on the new Autism Center for Diagnosis and Treatment when Gov. Jay Nixon put the project on hold along plans for 29 other university construction jobs.

Work will now move ahead following Friday's decision by Nixon to release the $2.4 million allocated to the center as part of $118.1 million that will flow to 18 projects. Another 12, including a business incubator at Southeast, will remain shelved until money is available, Nixon announced.

The decision was immediately hailed by the university and by Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau. The autism center will provide important help for families in the region, Crowell said. And Dr. Ken Dobbins, president of Southeast, said center will be an example of interagency cooperation in addition to being a substantial boost to families dealing with autism.

Unlike the autism center, for which a contractor has already been hired and all preparations are finished, the business incubator is far from ready to build, Dobbins said. "The governor did the right thing by putting that on indefinite hold," Dobbins said.

The decision came after a review of construction projects being funded by payments from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority. University officials broke ground on the autism center Jan. 23, five days before Nixon announced he would not fund the center, or any other pending MOHELA-funded project, until the review was completed.

The college building program, started by former GOP governor Matt Blunt, depends on the receipt of $350 million over several years from the Missouri Higher Education Loan Authority.

The loan agency made an initial $230 million payment to the state in September 2007. But it has delayed several subsequent quarterly payments because of financial troubles caused by the credit market crunch and changes in federal student loan laws.

Nixon spokesman Jack Cardetti told the Associated Press the determination of which college projects received money depended more on how quickly they got started rather than the merits of one building versus another.

"Projects that were well on their way to being completed were funded so that those could be completed in full," Cardetti said. Those not funded generally were "projects that had a lot of work to be done or hadn't started their work."

After funding the 18 projects approved Friday, Nixon's office said $266,888 remained of the money MOHELA has supplied the state so far.

In a statement issued Friday afternoon, Crowell said he was happy Nixon had released the MOHELA funds. Throughout the process, Gov. Nixon and commissioner of administration Kelvin Simmons "were open, honest and cooperative, and I am so pleased we were able to work together to get this project back on track quickly and efficiently," Crowell said. "The good that this center will do for families in Southeast Missouri is immeasurable."

If Southeast had been forced to cancel the autism center construction, it would have been forced to pay the contractor damages for canceling, Dobbins said. Instead, contractor Zoellner Construction Co. Inc. of Perryville, Mo., will be hiring local labor and purchasing materials locally, he said.

"That is going to keep the money in the local economy and we are pleased about that, too," Dobbins said.

The 11,582-square-foot center will be built at the corner of Middle and Mill streets. It should be open by December, Dobbins said.


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