So far, UMass build-out not impacted by money crunch

Facing a deficit totaling millions of dollars, UMass-Boston is forging ahead with plans to expand its Columbia Point campus, including a science complex, dorms and garages.

UMass officials say that despite the weak economy and state budget cuts, they remain on track to break ground on their own science building in autumn 2010. The 250,000-square foot "integrated science complex" is expected to open at the end of 2013.

The complex is being designed by Boston-based firm Goody Clancy and financed through $100 million in borrowed funds from the Legislature, and $50 million from UMass's own independent building agency.

"There's been no signal in any way that we aren't moving forward," said Ellen O'Connor, vice chancellor of administration and finance.

The move comes as Harvard University's plans for its own science complex in Allston haved stalled, to the chagrin of Boston Mayor Thomas Menino, and members of the UMass Board of Trustees voted on Friday to raise fees for the average in-state undergraduate student to $11,048 from $9,548 in the coming academic year. The increase is aimed at stemming a potential cut of $102 million, a figure unseen since 1997, from the state to the five-campus university system's budget.

If lawmakers on Beacon Hill sign off on the cuts, $17 million out of the $102 million would hit UMass-Boston. "The significant part of filling the gap is the fee increases," O'Connor said.

But even with the increase in fees to cover the cuts, UMass-Boston still faces a budget gap ranging between $4 million and $6 million, according to O'Connor.

"We're looking at just about every tool to fill that gap," she said. Asked if layoffs are in the mix, O'Connor said officials have "not taken anything off the table."

Dorms remain on the agenda, but still appear a few years off. Some neighborhood activists have decried the school's attempt to build dorms in the past, arguing that the move will change the campus's character. University officials say the campus, which 13,000 students attend, will remain dominated by commuter students.

O'Connor said on-campus housing, and at least the construction of 1,000 beds, will still occur in the next 10 years, after the campus has completed building two academic buildings &endash; including the science complex &endash; and a parking garage.

UMass officials hope to have 2,000 beds by the end of the university's 25-year master plan.

The university is also hoping to grab some of the funds from the $787 billion federal stimulus package. Massachusetts is expected to receive billions of dollars for construction projects, education and health programs, in order to mitigate some of the budget cuts.

O'Connor said UMass-Boston has $16 million in projects that are "shovel-ready," and university officials are waiting for the final sign-off from the state.

Of that money, university officials say $3 million will go towards finishing its section of the HarborWalk, which runs along the university's outer edges and up to the John F. Kennedy Library.

The rest of the funds would go towards deferred maintenance projects, such as $4.5 million to replace the roof of a utility plant under the school's library building. The utility plan has suffered from fire damage and water leakage. "It's begging for a replacement," O'Connor said.

UMass system officials also plan to use federal stimulus funds to potentially roll back the fee increases. Money from the fee increases will also be set aside for financial aid.

"Even though we have made plans to blunt the effects of a fee increase, our preferred course would still be to obtain stimulus funds that would allow us to rebate some or all of this increase," UMass President Jack Wilson said in a statement.