In early February, the SUNY New Paltz Vice President of Programming of the Student Association (SA), Danielle Franklin, sent out an email to the student body announcing the cancellation of this year’s SpringFest, after a standard audit uncovered a $200,000 budget deficit.
As a customary practice to change auditors every three years, a new auditor came to SUNY New Paltz at the end of the fall 2018 semester to start the audit process.
“We’ve always budgeted $1.5 million, thus the problem,” said the SA’s Financial Disbursement Agent Bill Clark.
While the SA has always budgeted $1.5 million, the auditor investigated into the SA’s financial records and found that its revenue has been averaging around $1.3 million for the past eight years.
Both the auditor and SA are still unsure of what exactly went wrong. Their best guess is that previous auditors included the university’s reserve cash when mapping out the budget, thus coming to the conclusion of $1.5 million as a budget target.
“All the SAs throughout the SUNY system have to have either 5-10 percent of their funds reserved for emergency purposes. So you have to count it as an asset, not like liquid cash,” Clark said.
Immediately, Franklin, Clark and the SA’s Vice President of the Budget and Finance Committee (BFC) Michelle Javier brainstormed options to collect the needed $200,000 to make up for the deficit.
“I got to be honest with you. I’m glad I wasn’t in that decision making part of this because it sucked,” Clark said.
Some of the possible remedies included taking a percentage out of every line item’s—a club that has chartered for three or more consecutive semesters and is entitled to $10,000—budget, or taking out a percentage of money from General Programming (GP) or Conferences. However, neither option deemed plausible or effective in acquiring $200,000.
The decision came down to cancelling SpringFest—it’s budget of $115,000 accounting for a little more than half the budget deficit—or completely getting rid of GP.
“Unfortunately, it was more convenient to take out one concert that is the majority of the deficit for one day that only 2,000 people can go to because that is the capacity of Elting Gym, than having taken out GP completely and having dozens of clubs not being able to do any type of program or event throughout the semester,” Javier said.
Javier and Franklin then put their recommendation of cancelling SpringFest through the Executive Board, and then through the Senate where it was ratified.
To make up for the remaining deficit of $85,000, the BFC took a portion out of the GP’s, Conferences’ and Research Grants’ budget.
The reality of the deficit came into fruition through stages. According to Clark, there was no concrete evidence of a serious deficit until late in the winter break. Yet, red flags were raised back in the spring 2018 semester.
“We knew it was a clue last year that things were headed in a bad direction when we ran out of money in March,” Clark said. “April was tricky, like we ran out of GP money for GP clubs.”
The lower number of clubs in previous semesters allowed the overestimation in the SA’s budget to go unnoticed because the SA was not fully expending their revenue.
“That cushion just allowed us to roll from one year to the next. And as we’ve added clubs, the cushion just slowly went away,” Clark said.
Beneath the surface of the cancellation of SpringFest lies a problematic system in both generating new clubs and budgeting for clubs.
Under the SA’s current budgeting system, there are different amounts of money a club can receive depending on how long they have been chartered for.
“GP is a line of funds for any SA recognized clubs to tap into. Any clubs that aren’t line items can do general interest meetings, go on trips if they wanted to, or go to a conference,” Franklin explained.
A brand new club can receive up to $1,000 a semester. A club that chooses not to be a line item but has chartered for three consecutive semesters can receive up to $10,000. A line item, however, is outside the realm of GP and has an agreed upon sum of money set aside in the beginning of the year. A line item may ask for more than $10,000.
According to Clark, SUNY New Paltz typically adds about 10 clubs a year. Currently, the university’s club count is at 173.
“This is really the problem,” Clark said, “There is no restriction on adding clubs.”
Every time a new club is added, the SA’s budget is stretched thinner and thinner until ultimately all the cushion worked into the budget is depleted.
“If we had 120, 130 clubs, we might have had enough cushion to get through this deficit and have the concert. But we don’t. We have 173 and that’s putting a lot of pressure on our revenue,” Clark said.
SUNY New Paltz students pay for the SA’s productions through the university’s student activity fee, found within the mandatory service fee. Compared to other SUNY schools—SUNY Cortland ($220), SUNY Oneonta ($231), SUNY Fredonia ($227) and SUNY Oswego ($226)—SUNY New Paltz’s student activity fee of $210 per school year falls on the low end of the spectrum.
While the next referendum to vote on changing the activity fee is in the spring 2020 semester, the activity fee has not been changed in years, potentially due to the student government being sensitive to adding costs.
“A lot of students struggle with just tuition and housing and stuff, they don’t want to add another 20 dollars to the activity fee, that’s another 40 dollars a year,” Clark said.
Along with having a relatively low student activity fee, SUNY New Paltz’s SA is one of the few SUNY schools that use GP in their budget.
“I feel like the system now was more successful when there were less clubs, but now that we are having way more clubs, maybe it’s time to think of something else we can do,” Javier said.
Clark, the BFC and and the Programming Committee are looking into dismantling GP and making each club required for a line item.
“When you leave space in GP for any club that chartered for three consecutive semesters to be entitled to $10,000, you never know if they are going to ask you for $10,000 or not. They can just come through the entire year and just ask for $1,000. But if everyone is a line item, it’s really specific on how much they can ask for throughout the year,” Javier said. “It would make it easier to manage, to be honest.”
This budgeting system would also allegedly prevent the budget cushion running out because all the funds would already be allotted in the beginning of the year.
Going forward, Clark claims that they will not have this problem again and are fully expecting the concert to happen next year. The current BFC is projecting $1.3 million for the upcoming year and will budget accordingly. This audit is still ongoing, but is expected to be done “very, very soon.”