The University of Maine system owns 650 buildings that cover 9 million square feet. Three-quarters of the structures were built before 1970, and most of them have original heating systems fired by fuel oil.

Combining electric and fuel costs, the university spent $23.8 million in the last fiscal year on energy, roughly 5 percent of the system’s operating budget.

“It’s just old infrastructure,” said Rebecca Wyke, the university’s chief financial officer.

As the June 8 primary election approaches, Wyke and other university officials are lobbying hard for passage of Question 2.

The $26.5 million bond issue for wind-energy development would leverage an additional $24.5 million in federal funds to make energy improvements at the university, community colleges and Maine Maritime Academy.

It also would advance the state’s goals of building a floating, offshore wind power demonstration site and an associated laboratory that would immediately create 300 construction jobs.

Cutting power costs and creating clean-energy jobs sound like good things, but the bond also faces opposition from fiscal conservatives who insist this is a bad time for the state to borrow money.

“Our position has been, no more debt, not now,” said Chris Cinquemani, a spokesman for the Maine Heritage Policy Center. “It’s just bad policy.”

Infrastructure bonds that create jobs typically win support among Maine voters. A wild card in this election is whether the anti-government, anti-establishment undercurrent that’s flowing through political races will sweep into bond requests.

It has been common over the years for the university to seek bonds to upgrade its physical plant, officials say, rather than relying solely on a shrinking operating budget. As it is, the university hasn’t had an infrastructure bond since 2007, Wyke said, and the $9.5 million earmarked for energy improvements is one-sixth of what the system requested, and one-third of what Gov. John Baldacci sought from the Legislature.

“We have a backlog of deferred maintenance and replacement,” she said.

Including community colleges and Maine Maritime, the total amount requested for energy improvements is $15.5 million.

When maintenance includes energy upgrades, the results can be a good investment of tax dollars, according to Ed Dailide, the university’s director of facilities. For instance: Money from the 2007 bond was used to replace windows and install new heating systems and controls at Folsom-Pullen Hall in Presque Isle. The old units burned 55,000 gallons of oil to keep the building warm in 2008. The new set-up used 17,000 gallons last year, saving $50,000 in fuel costs, Dailide said.

These basic upgrades are needed in much of the university system, Dailide said.

At the Orono campus, which has 100 buildings connected to a central steam plant, separate meters are needed to understand the energy needs of each structure.

Beyond cutting energy use, $11 million from the bond would help set Maine on a course of generating power from floating turbines far off the coast. In time, supporters say, Maine could create thousands of jobs designing, manufacturing and servicing an industry built around deepwater wind farms.

Plans have already been drawn up to begin building a lab at Orono to test and manufacture composite wind blades, towers and floating platforms.

Money from the bond would complement federal funding and could put 300 construction workers on the job starting this summer, according to Habib Dagher, the University of Maine professor who is spearheading the effort. It also would create another 100 long-term engineering and technical jobs when the lab is operating, Dagher said.

Some politicians have made an issue of The Jackson Laboratory seeking to expand in Florida, which is courting the Maine biomedical pioneer with millions of dollars and a new research campus.

“We’re no different,” Dagher said of the wind lab. “We’re attracting jobs to Maine.”

Dagher also pointed out that Maine has already won a $12.4 million grant from the federal government to help construct the lab. If Maine doesn’t build the facility, he said, the money will go to another state. He also rejected the notion that today’s anti-government sentiment is a rationale to reject the bond.

“This isn’t about government,” he said. “It’s about companies in Maine creating jobs.”

That argument isn’t persuasive to Cinquemani. Job creation is a common claim among bond issue supporters, but the state’s net tally of new jobs has been essentially flat over the past decade, he said, despite past bonds.

The Maine Heritage Policy Center has sought to link the bond spending with questions about the state’s ability to fund its pension and retiree health care system.

That connection has created confusion, with bond supporters saying the retiree liabilities are a separate matter. They also note that Maine has a low level of bond indebtedness, below established guidelines, and passage of the June bonds wouldn’t change that.

Cinquemani concedes that point, but insisted that his group’s message is that Mainers shouldn’t add any new debt when other obligations appear underfunded.

“Right now, no more bonds, no more debt,” he said. “We can’t borrow our way out of recession.”

 

Staff Writer Tux Turkel can be contacted at 791-6462 or:

[email protected]