Sprinkler upgrade delayed

We can't understand why the state Budget and Control Board would call a halt to the installation of sprinkler systems in old dorms at the University of South Carolina -- especially when no taxpayer money is involved in the upgrade.

The board voted last week to call a three-month moratorium on all major construction projects on campuses across the state -- including renovations of three residence halls at USC to add fire protection and sprinklers. The moratorium also will affect a project for the Department of Disabilities and Special Needs to add fire alarm systems at the Whitten Center, the state-run home for the mentally disabled in Clinton.

The timing is especially troublesome for projects on university campuses. Because dorm renovations must be done in the summer when students are off campus, the halt could result in a year-long delay in adding the sprinklers to three residence halls with a total of 920 beds.

The Budget and Control Board is an administrative council composed of the governor, the comptroller general, the state treasurer and the chairmen of the House and Senate budget committees. Most states have no such boards, and many critics in South Carolina believe the governor should have the sole authority to make decisions now made by the board.

Currently, however, state law requires state universities to get approval from the Budget and Control Board for any construction project, whether or not the Legislature provided the money. State Comptroller General Richard Eckstrom, in explaining the moratorium, said the state's declining tax revenues made him uneasy, and he wanted time for the state economy to stabilize.

Ironically, though, the safety improvements at USC are paid for with student fees, not taxpayer funds. So, they shouldn't affect the state's bottom line.

It might even be argued that staying on track with these projects would help create employment opportunities at a time when state jobless figures have just risen significantly. And that would help boost the economy.

But whatever the economic impact, the primary consideration is student safety. While USC has smoke detectors in all of the approximately 6,900 rooms in its dorms, only about 75 percent of the beds now have sprinklers. Projects scheduled for this summer would have raised the number to 85 percent, and the university plans eventually to have sprinklers for every bed.

This is a shortsighted decision on the part of the Budget and Control Board. Delaying the sprinkler installation could cost lives.

Meanwhile, we would be sympathetic with parents who complain if their children are assigned to the upper floors of residence halls without sprinklers.