LINCOLN — The University of Nebraska-Lincoln got final approval Thursday for a new veterinary diagnostics center, but not without hearing criticism about the way it had planned and funded the $45.6 million facility.
Nebraska's Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education approved plans to replace the aging building — which would be at risk of failing reaccreditation without major renovations, because it doesn't adequately separate potential airborne pathogens.
Commissioners voted 8-0, with one member abstaining, to approve the new building. That was despite concerns from a staff researcher and commissioners that the new building is bigger than necessary and that the commission was cut out of the planning process.
The 65,000-square-foot diagnostic lab is the most complex and costly per square foot that the commission has ever considered, said Mike Wemhoff, facilities officer at the Coordinating Commission for Postsecondary Education.
But the commission had no role in planning it because the NU system circumvented the traditional process and brought it to the commission for approval only after the Legislature had appropriated money last year as part of the Building a Healthier Nebraska plan.
That bill funded all but $4.15 million of the veterinary center, $15 million for a nursing and allied health professions college at the University of Nebraska at Kearney and $50 million for the University of Nebraska Medical Center's cancer research center.
The commission also approved the allied health building at UNK. Wemhoff expressed no concerns about that plan.
Wemhoff told commissioners he's concerned about whether the veterinary facility really needed to more than triple in size from 18,000 square feet. The size does mean the facility could accommodate decades of growth, but the commission was put in the position of second-guessing decisions already made by the Legislature and governor, Wemhoff said.
“I would say this is not the most efficient way of doing things,” Wemhoff said.
Commission member Joyce Simmons fully supports the new facility, she said, but abstained on the vote because the process wasn't followed.
“With the proper process, we'd have been able to address these issues to help in the planning and design, and right-sizing the facility,” Simmons said.
Ronnie Green, NU vice president for the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, said the Legislature funded the project before NU had a chance to bring it to the commission. He said he'd have preferred bringing it to the commission first.
Ron Withem, director of governmental relations at NU, said the accrediting agency told NU in late 2011 its accreditation was at risk, and the bill moved quickly afterward, gaining momentum from private donors that were lining up behind the Fred & Pamela Buffett Cancer Center. NU was required to find donors or other sources for the $4.15 million not funded by the state.
“The process has to be flexible enough to take advantage of opportunities like the cancer center in Omaha, and to meet challenges like the veterinary diagnostic lab,” Withem said.
The commission was created because legislators wanted an objective agency to review capital projects and send a prioritized list to the Legislature, said interim Executive Director Carna Pfeil. But the Healthier Nebraska plan looked more like the way projects were approved before the commission was created.
Pfeil said the commission still could have chosen to reject the plan or ask for amendments.
Simmons said it seemed too late to be suggesting changes, especially because the current building isn't meeting accreditation standards.
“When it comes to us at this stage, it's probably a yes or no question,” Simmons said.
The new center will include labs and classrooms as well as a new level-3 animal biosafety lab for surveillance testing for illness in livestock.
Operating costs at the facility will be funded by increased fees at the diagnostic lab, according to the plan.