By Ruth Dahl
Western Carolina University’s steam plant is still running on long outdated equipment and is in major need of upgrades, and the powers-that-be from down east are paying attention.
On Thursday, March 6, interim UNC System President Dr. Bill Roper visited WCU to tour the aging facility and address the budget impasse that continues to take its toll on the university and the state.
The budget under discussion is currently nine months overdue, making it impossible for WCU to move forward with steam plant updates.
“It’s working today, but we’re one catastrophic shutdown away from having to close the university,” Roper said. “We need to get started, because we can’t finish until we get started.”
The construction of the steam plant upgrade will take about a year and a half, officials said.
Faculty, staff and students are feeling the strain of the budget stalemate as well. Without money for NC Promise, WCU cannot continue to grow its enrollment rate or hire new faculty and staff to support the student population.
“(Faculty and staff) are continuing to work very hard, but it’s taking a toll on them,” WCU Chancellor Kelli Brown said. “They’ll continue to do (great work), but it’s getting harder and harder every day.”
Roper said the budget impasse is a consequence of political tension between Republicans and Democrats in the state legislature.
“Our strong plea is just don’t make us collateral damage in this battle that’s happening on the political fence,” Roper said.
Roper made the comparison of the federal government’s quick appropriation of $8 billion to deal with coronavirus, saying “… the same kind of unusual action needs to be taken to fix the budget problem that we’ve had so that we can continue to provide what the state depends on us for.”
Roper said the legislature could pass a “mini-budget” specific to the university system’s needs.
Half of the money for the steam plant upgrade has been disbursed, but it is the other half, $16.5 million, that is needed before any progress can be made.
In the meantime, officials say the outdated facility continues to run on borrowed time.
Ruth Dahl is a student in WCU’s News II class.