By Laila Kearney
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - As Janet Napolitano prepares to lead the cash-strapped University of California, the Board of Regents voted Wednesday to take first steps toward a possible multi-million dollar repair of a decaying mansion to house the system's presidents.
The move to fix up the mansion, which could cost as much as $6 million over two years, comes just two weeks before the former Homeland Security chief is expected to take over as U.C. president, and provides a telling example of what she faces as she tries to bring financial order to the prestigious but struggling system.
The Board of Regents for the sprawling, 13-campus system unanimously approved spending an initial $620,000 toward renovating the dilapidated Blake House mansion, which was designed by prominent turn-of-the century architect Walter Danforth Bliss, whose work included such San Francisco landmarks as the St. Francis Hotel and the Bank of America building.
"We were just trying to keep it together so it doesn't fall apart," said Regent Frederick Ruiz after Wednesday's meeting.
In hiring Napolitano, state officials were counting on her political savvy and fund-raising prowess to restore a system racked by years of budget cuts and turmoil.
Although she wasn't on the job Wednesday to argue for or against the renovation project, Napolitano could influence subsequent votes on additional spending.
The dwelling has been vacant since 2008 and has fallen into extreme disrepair, said Patrick Lenz, U.C. vice president for budget. It will cost about $370,000 for the most basic repairs and deferred maintenance, including fixing its leaking roof, officials said, plus another $250,000 for preliminary architectural plans.
If the mansion is completely renovated, it won't be habitable for at least two years, during which time the university will spend about $10,000 per month for Napolitano's rented residence.
Chosen from among more than 300 candidates in part because of her political skills, the 55-year-old Democrat and two-term Arizona governor takes the helm as the university is struggling to recover from economic crises that have eaten away at the state budget on and off for nearly two decades.
Cuts of nearly $1 billion over the last five years have led to tuition increases and class shortages, and have strained relations with faculty and staff through the imposition of furlough days and hiring freezes.
Napolitano has not said what she thinks of repairing the mansion, and university officials said Tuesday that they had not "fully" discussed it with her. A regents committee had voted to recommend beginning the initial work.
Some regents, however, were skeptical.
"The last time I was at the Blake House was about eight years ago and I thought it was pretty run down then," said Ruiz, who in the end voted Wednesday to support beginning preliminary work on the project.
The historic mansion sits in the quiet community of Kensington - four miles to the north of the U.C. Berkeley campus and near the system's administrative offices in Oakland. It was donated to the university in 1957 and has traditionally been used to serve as the living quarters for the university system's presidents.
As the mansion lay in disrepair, the university was paying to lease living quarters for its presidents, spending more than $100,000 for each of the past five years to house outgoing President Mark Yudof, and entering into a two-year lease of about $10,000 per month for a house for Napolitano.
The president's residence must be large, officials said, because he or she is expected to host events there as well as live on the premises.
Lenz, who proposed renovating the mansion, said the cost of leasing such a facility would eclipse the cost of repairs on Blake House in just 15 years.
To be habitable, he said, the mansion would require seismic and security upgrades, repairs to the kitchen and residential areas along with other fixes.
His department will look into the possibility of selling the site, but Lenz said initial repairs were needed right away.
"We're kind of at a point where we need to retain the value that we have," he said.
University spokeswoman Dianne Klein said in a statement that the large public rooms on the first floor of the 13,000 square foot mansion were large enough for university functions, but the upstairs living quarters were "not currently adequate to meet the needs of the president."
Immediate and long-term funding for the project would come from the Searles Fund, an endowment used for expenses not covered by the state, Klein said.
(Reporting by Laila Kearney, Editing by Sharon Bernstein and Ken Wills)