The Student Activities Board, the Undergraduate Student Government agency responsible for bringing big acts like Aziz Ansari, Bruno Mars and Christian Finnegan to campus last year, received an additional $264,887 over last year’s initial budget despite drastically overspending their 2010-2011 budget, in violation of USG’s own bylaws.
The recent increase will bring SAB’s budget to a record $534,887.26, tripling the size the agency was just two years ago. SAB now accounts for almost a fifth of the entire USG budget.
USG Treasurer Thomas Kirnbauer said that the change in SAB’s budget was a strictly a policy decision. “They did a really good job last year at reaching a large number of students and they deserve it,” said Kirnbauer of the increase. “We’re going to have a Fall event,” he said, similar to the end-of-year concert that SAB holds every spring.
But while SAB may have been successful in appealing to students, they struggled to control their spending. A pattern of fiscal irresponsibility has emerged, and evidence and anecdotes of excesses and financial mismanagement are plentiful.
In March, SAB spent $10,000 to bring the Upright Citizens Brigade, a popular improv troupe based in New York City, to campus for the second time that year. But days before the event was scheduled, SAB pulled the plug on the performance, fearing that too few students would show up. The troupe still made the trip to Stony Brook, and collected their check sitting in the USG office.
Food is also a popular expenditure for SAB. Providing snacks for guests is common practice, but walking into USG’s offices in late June you would have still found yourself surrounded by gallons of soda and boxes of unopened snacks purchased and never used.
T-shirts that were purchased and never distributed sat in the USG office for months until the last week of the semester, when Kirnbauer and other USG officials unloaded dozens of them to students waiting in line for the Bruno Mars concert.
But it was the end-of-the-year concert itself featuring Bruno Mars and Janelle Monáe that caused most of the problems. It cost $140,000 to book the act, but there were several other costly expenses that SAB did not adequately account for, or ultimately even have the budget for.
SAB began pushing checks through the USG accounting office, circumnavigating around the built-in checks meant to catch reckless spending by USG clubs and agencies.
“They didn’t go through the proper channels,” said Kirnbauer, noting that expenditures would normally have to be approved by the USG Senate.
“It was obviously breaking the rules,” said Kirnbauer, who described the actions as “not illegal, but highly frowned upon.”
Whether there is a single person or entity that broke the rules is unclear, but several layers of protection against overspending were ignored along the way. The planning committee itself, headed by then SAB Director Moiz Khan, knew their costs would come in over budget and failed to obtain—or even seek—USG senate approval for additional funds. The USG accounting office, responsible for ensuring clubs and agencies do not spend more than they have in their budgets, did not catch SAB’s spending until it was too late. And USG itself allowed SAB to bypass normal protocol of obtaining funds.
SUNY policy states that each student government must develop procedures to regulate spending. The policy reads: “The internal control guidelines will provide the fiscal agent with operational and fiscal procedures that must be observed by the student government.”
And according to Stony Brook University’s USG financial bylaws, vouchers requesting access to funds must be submitted five to seven days in advance and should be rejected by the accountant if there are insufficient funds in the club’s budget.
That was the case by mid May, according to USG’s accounting office.
Barbara Leigh-Manuell, who works in the office, described SAB as “well over budget” in a conversation on June 27. And according to Kirnbauer, invoices from the Bruno Mars concert are still coming in as of this week.
On June 28, more than a month after the concert and with SAB already in the red, Gina Windisch, another accountant in the office, received three more invoices, one for $2,500, related to the concert.
Kirnbauer denied Think Magazine access to SAB’s precise budget on Wednesday, saying that he wanted to release one final budget report once an exact figure was available, in approximately two to four weeks.
That’s around the same time Stony Brook University will begin their annual auditing process and take a close look at how rampant overspending was allowed to happen unchecked.
Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Peter Baigent is the final word on USG’s budget. He must approve the USG budget before it is enacted. Baigent rarely if ever interferes with the specific budgetary decisions made by USG, but in March he spoke with USG officials, warning them that more controls needed to be put on SAB’s funding. Last year was the first time SAB’s budget was distributed as a lump sum and not a line-item budget, which granted them more flexibility to book larger events that are often only on the market for a few days.
The new policy is also part of what contributed to the lack of oversight of SAB’s spending. Single items no longer needed approval, as is the case with most USG clubs.
Baigent said that he would point auditors in the direction of SAB when they begin their annual check in mid to late July. Based on what he’s seen so far though, these actions may have been against the rules, but not against the law.
“The bylaws are in place to assure all students an equal ability to access the Student Fee money,” he said, pointing out that illegal activities would lie more along the lines of theft than mismanagement.
But despite mounting evidence of SAB’s inability to manage money and the lack of any effective oversight, USG has placed its faith – along with well over half a million dollars – with the organization.
“We have a checklist of what we need for these events now,” said new USG President Mark Maloof, who does not anticipate this happening again in the future. He also indicated that greater attention would be placed on SAB in the coming year, and that he would be much stricter with them.
Meanwhile, clubs, which have already seen drastic reductions in their 2011-2012 budgets, may also pay a price for SAB’s budget overruns.
The USG budget is designed to handle large events that come in over budget, but at the cost of the next year’s budget. During a process called Fall Revisions, unspent money from the previous year is allocated to clubs and organizations that request additional funding. The less money that’s left over at the end of the previous year, the less money clubs are able to earn back in the revisions process.
USG Treasurer Tom Kirnbauer has estimated that number to be in the six figures, but with SAB invoices expected to continue to arrive until August, the budget for Fall Revisions is steadily becoming smaller.
It’s also possible that even SAB will request fall revisions. Last semester, former USG Treasurer Moiz Khan requested an initial budget of $700,000 for SAB, according to Kirnbauer.
But in a year in which clubs were cut by about $175,000, Maloof said he, along with Kirnbauer, plans to “distribute a percentage of the rollover [budget] amongst the clubs that experienced budget cuts,” not to clubs who saw increases.
SAB’s increase of $264,887.26 from last year’s initial budget is made up of money from several other agencies and club budgets. Money cut from contract services like NYPIRG and Child Care Services, along with $80,000 that was included in last year’s budget to renovate the commuter lounge in the Student Activities Center, also went towards SAB’s 2011-2012 budget.