Blog readers will recall that at a prior Regents meeting, UCLA produced a very sketchy and high cost plan for a new medical building, a “teaching and learning center.” The presentation was so sketchy and the costs were so worrisome for the Regents to ask for a revised plan. At the Jan. 16 meeting of the Grounds and Building Committee, UCLA came back with a revised plan for a $104.7 million project – said to be significantly scaled back – with more details.
As with the earlier hotel project, UCLA apparently had offline meetings with Regents after the prior meeting (such discussions are referenced in the Jan. 16 proceedings) and persuaded them of the need for the building. There was rather perfunctory questioning on Jan. 16 until Regent William De La Peña, an ophthalmologist, began raising issues again about cost. He suggested that UCLA was excluding dollar costs from the total in calculating the dollar/square foot ratio and exaggerating the footage. He argued that the comparable buildings cited for costs were built in good times and that nowadays construction firms would offer lower prices. The idea that because donor dollars would be raised, the building was somehow freed from such cost worries was also viewed as a dubious proposition.
Yet at the end, the committee decided to approve the project with some vague understanding that despite the approval, UCLA would see if it could get lower bids or somehow lower the cost and tell the Regents about what it saved. There was no suggestion that if cost savings were not found, the project would be unapproved.
Once again, we have an example of costly projects being approved by Regents – despite reservations – because at the end of the day they have no independent oversight capability. That lack is a general problem that goes beyond the UCLA hotel and medical projects. As Regent De La Peña pointed out, if donor dollars were more efficiently used, more might be accomplished with them.