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Budget panel agrees to fund UH-Hilo pharmacy college building

The state Legislature’s budget conference committee has agreed on a proposal to fund a permanent building for the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy, legislators and university officials said Friday.

The agreement reached by House and Senate conferees totals $33 million, to be funded by $28 million in general obligation bonds and $5 million in revenue bonds.

“We’ll have a better chance of accreditation, that’s the number-one thing,” said Jerry Chang, UH-Hilo’s director of University Relations. “And construction of the project will make sure that all college of pharmacy programs will be on one campus.”

The college was established in 2007, awarded its first degrees in 2011, and will graduate its fourth class in May. A site for the new building has been chosen at University Park mauka of the main UHH campus. The design by Rob Iopa of WCIT Architecture in Honolulu is almost complete, according to Chang.

“He’s a Waiakea High grad from here in Hilo,” Chang said. “He also designed the (Ka Haka ‘Ula O Ke‘elikolani) College of Hawaiian Language building that we dedicated several months ago.”

The funding and bond issue will have to be approved in floor votes by both legislative chambers and the budget signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to be finalized.

“Since it’s in the legislative budget through conference and since it’s in the governor’s executive budget, we feel pretty confident that it will move ahead,” said John Pezzuto, the pharmacy school’s dean.

The pharmacy college has been operating out of three sites, including modular buildings near the proposed construction site and two off-campus locations. In February, the Accreditation Council for Pharmacy Education instructed Pezzuto to submit, no later than May 1, a detailed description of the school’s progress toward obtaining a physical facility — a requirement for any accredited program.

“The ACPE considered us out of compliance when it came to that one single standard called physical facilities,” Pezzuto said. “That, I think was taken into account. I will write them a letter by May 1 that they’ll consider at their June board meeting. Had we not been in compliance or had we not had a good plan to come into compliance we could have been put on probation, so I think the timing could not have been more perfect.”

In February, Pezzuto said that failure to fund a building “would be equivalent to pushing us off the cliff, and we would be in a freefall. … Perhaps someone — Superman — could come along and save us, but what he would be saving would be a house in shambles.”

According to state Sen. Russell Ruderman (D-Puna, Ka‘u) a member of the conference committee, Superman showed up in the form of Sen. Gil Kahele, a Hilo Democrat, who Ruderman said “worked really hard to get the funding.” He also praised the efforts of Chang and Gerald De Mello, Chang’s predecessor, who has since retired.

Kahele, who’s also a budget conferee, was modest about his role in the funding, calling it “the culmination of a joint effort by many.”

“A myriad of good things will come out of this,” he said, mentioning construction jobs, better recruitment of students plus community service work, especially in rural communities, by pharmacy students, faculty and staff.

“I know for a fact that the students go out into the community to help the elderly,” he said.

Ruderman said he’ll be happy to see the pharmacy school “firmly rooted in Hilo.”

“A lot of the pharmacists and pharmacy-related people who come to educate our students and a lot of the students who become pharmacists, I think they’ll tend to stay in the community,” he said.

State Sen. Josh Green (D-Kona, Ka‘u), who’s an emergency room physician, called the funding “a great thing.”

“This will ensure that the pharmacy school can grow and recruit top-notch candidates and become an economic driver in our healthcare system locally in years to come,” he said.

Chang said that once the governor signs the budget into law bids can be solicited for the building’s construction and land clearing “could begin immediately.”

In a written statement, UHH Chancellor Don Straney called the project “a collective effort from the very beginning” and thanked “everyone who worked so hard to make this outcome possible.”

“We’re especially grateful for the support we’ve received from the House and Senate, beginning with the efforts of our Hawaii Island delegation,” he said.

The university has requested funds for the pharmacy school building for several years but Pezzuto said he believes legislators did their “due diligence” before deciding to go ahead with the bond issue.

“We’ve finally reached a point where I think they understand the importance of what we’re doing as the only college of pharmacy in the state and the Pacific region,” he said. “I think we’ve proven our ability and they’ve recognized that.”

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