By Nick Statt and Carol Moran
The Student Activities Board, the Undergraduate Student Government agency responsible for putting on large-scale campus events, has approximately $110,000 still unspent this year–even after the $215,000 allocated for the end of the year concert and $40,000 to the Roth Regatta. Despite that surplus, the USG Budget Committee has awarded the agency a draft budget of $530,000 for next year, a one percent decrease from its current budget.
Complicating that decision is SAB’s history of fiscal irresponsibility—it significantly overspent its 2010-2011 budget mainly because of mounting costs from last year’s Bruno Mars concert—and that pattern has continued this semester, but in the opposite form, as SAB seems unable to use its entire budget. This underspending is highlighted by the fact that SAB was awarded a 34 percent increase, from roughly $404,000 to its current $534,886, while many USG-funded clubs and organizations took budget cuts. None of that apparently factored into the Budget Committee’s decision a few weeks ago to award nearly the same amount of money to the most heavily funded and internal USG club on campus, while many USG officers and SAB members declared that venue booking and contract obstacles have kept SAB from using its increased budget.
To make matters worse, SAB’s budget is currently in danger of being frozen by the USG Accounting Office if it fails to turn in 5 of its 7 missing receipts that document where funds have been spent, an issue that is due mostly to disorganization. Any club, regardless of how tightly they work alongside USG officers, is only allowed up to two missing receipts per year. This is but one of the many reasons that Assistant Treasurer Kenneth Myers, who oversaw SAB’s budget, announced his resignation in an email last Wednesday. The other issues involve members of SAB bypassing the democratic process, creating an overall air of disorganization that Myers feels has disenchanted him from his position and his role in USG. For an organization that was, only last year, the “one-man show” of Former Special Programming Agency Director Moiz Khan, this year’s SAB run is proving as convoluted a test of USG’s solidarity as anyone could have imagined.
What Would You Do if You Had Over $100,000 You Couldn’t Spend?
USG Treasurer Thomas Kirnbauer said SAB would try to use as much of its budget as it can before the end of the semester, and it will probably be left with less than $100,000 after the end of year concert.
“It’s unfortunate that this is the last concert of the year so if something were to fall through, it leaves extra budget at the end because we’re only planning up to the budget, not beyond the budget,” Kirnbauer said. He added that administrators have been “hounding” the agency to make sure they don’t go over budget like last year, making it difficult to come close to using all their available funds.
“We really were under a lot of pressure this year in terms of how we spend our money,” said USG President Mark Maloof of the excess funds. He added that unspent money would be funneled into next year’s event grant pool, which would benefit clubs in the future.
A budget given to The Press in March indicated that SAB had $125,000 dollars left in its budget after taking into account the Roth Regatta’s $40,000 and the end-of-the-year concert’s $215,000. But there are some expenses lined up to bring that surplus down. For one, Kirnbauer has planned a “undie run” and waterpark extravaganza to take place between the Roth Regatta and the end-of-the-year concert, which is estimated to cost $15,000 due to security expenses and waterpark activities. Maloof also added that the end-of-the-year concert has unknown increases in security expenses due to pay raises, meaning the overall production cost of the concert is likely to be higher than the estimated $100,000 listed in the March budget.
“Everything they did in the draft budget was right,” he said, referring to the members of SAB. “They allocated for certain events, they left some extra money as kind of a buffer to ensure that we don’t go over, kind of like a contingency fund, so you know they are allocating as much as they can.”
At an SAB meeting earlier this semester, Patrice Zapiti, the event programming associate for SAB who works under current SPA Director Jackie Cowles, explained that the agency has run into difficulty putting on concerts this year because last year’s SAB members did not reserve venues as they should have. That means SAB was last on the list this year to book venues, such as the sports arena, Staller and the SAC auditorium, and was limited to the artists available on the few dates they could get.
“That’s why Chiddy Bang was on a Sunday night,” Myers said. He added that they had originally planned to have a bigger end-of-year concert, but more than one attempt to book big-name artists fell through, and the members of SAB were split on which artists they should bring. The agency tossed around names like Nicki Minaj—who is far too expensive to book, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, who aren’t as popular, but would still have cost significantly more than Bruno Mars, who performed last year. SAB had also talked about bringing Major Laser, Jessie J and Childish Gambino, though those three were knocked off the list.
“And then all of a sudden we were talking about Tyga,” said Myers of the proposed second act for the end-of-the-year concert. Tyga would have cost almost as much as Wiz Khalifa, who is set to come for an estimated $85,000, which would have comfortably used up much of the remaining SAB funds with enough left over to act as the buffer Kirnbauer explained was necessary. But that ideal situation also fell through because Tyga was unavailable on April 27, the only day SAB was able to book the sports complex, the only venue on campus capable of putting on a concert of the same magnitude as the Bruno Mars concert. “Tyga was going to cost about $80 grand or something. And so that’s why, when he didn’t sign off, we ended up with an excess of money,” explained Myers.
But despite having a draft budget of $530,000, SAB funds for next year are not set in stone. It is unlikely that the draft budget will decrease given the obvious fact that SAB is not an entirely independent club; it is run internally by USG through appointed positions voted on by USG. But any club budget can go up or down on the Senate floor when budgets are approved, according to Myers.
It only takes one member of the 22-person Undergraduate Senate to propose a budget change, and if more than half of the present members agree to propose the change, it goes to a second vote in which a two thirds majority is required to actually pass the change. The voting takes place regardless of how many members of the Senate are present on April 12, but there are USG rules capping the amount of times a Senator may miss meetings or use a proxy to avoid an absence.
SAB’s Inner Turmoil:
Missing Receipts & The Graphic Designer Debacle
“My moral compass tells me that I cannot be a part of this anymore,” Myers said in his resignation email. “I do not agree with our conduct.”
During spring break, SPA Director Jackie Cowles, the organizational head of SAB, sent an email to the other members of the organization asking for their approval of paying a graphic designer, Roman Belopolsky, $2,000 to create poster advertisements and t-shirts for Roth Regatta and the end-of-the-year concert. SAB had previously hired a student to create the designs, but he notified the agency days before the designs were due that he would not be able to complete them because the theme for the Roth Regatta—‘90’s pop culture—was something he was not familiar with, having not grown up in America during that period. This left SAB in a bind, forcing them to turn to Belopolsky because of him having been hired the previous year, as well as him having producing such high-quality work that USG could trust that the designs would be done adequately despite the short notice.
But the choice of Belopolsky carried a significant amount of baggage, making this email request, which would have involved Myers giving written consent that the money would be paid, that much more controversial. For one, Belopolsky was already rejected by the Senate last Fall on the grounds that he was not an official undergraduate student; he was, according to Myers, not taking classes and hiring him would have gone against the revised bylaw restriction that USG may only hire a contracted graphic designer that is a fully matriculated undergraduate student.
Not only did the Senate’s rejection of Belopolsky come into play immediately upon Cowles’ email request, but the fact that she was going through email and not presenting the decision in an official meeting was against the law. It’s also something Myers said happened quite frequently in the past. “Telling SAB that something urgently needs approval is an excuse that has been used too many times. As far as I know, SAB cannot approve allocations via private emails as they are not open meetings,” said Myers in an email in which he refused to give Cowles the written consent to pay Belopolsky.
Myers, and USG Executive Vice President Deborah Machalow, said approving the allocation of funds through email is a violation of the New York State Open Meetings Law, and should only happen in meetings that are recorded and open to the students, so they may monitor how their money is being used.
“These are public monies you are charged with dispensing,” Machalow said in an email to other SAB and USG members. “The students, who originally paid the fee used to create your budget, have every right to know where the money is going and should have every right to observe the decision-making process.” Machalow also brought up the fact that utilizing Belopolsky was effectively going behind the backs of the Senate, “Further, as Mark pointed out when this insipid conversation about the advertising of Roth Regatta began, it is undemocratic to go ahead and hire an individual whom the Senate clearly rejected for basically the same job,” she said in the email exchange.
The other members of SAB and USG said they had no other option, as the t-shirt designs had to be in by Friday and the posters up by Monday, and the next SAB meeting wouldn’t be held until after spring break. But Machalow said that is not a good enough excuse for violating the law. Despite the controversy, the hiring of Belopolsky was shifted over to the office of Vice President of Communications Stephanie Berlin, who was given an annual budget of $15,000 to spend at the beginning of the year. That budget does not carry the same restrictions as a USG contracted service and therefore could be done without the Senate’s consent. Berlin provided no comment on the matter when asked and Cowles did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
In the email announcing his resignation, Myers said he was displeased with the conduct of SAB, but he also attributed his resignation to having to take partial responsibility for missing receipts.
“My performance as Treasurer of SAB has been insufficient (with regards to the receipts issue) and I now realize that it is more difficult than I originally thought to keep track of one of the largest budgets on campus without losing track of anything,” Myers wrote. “I apologize to all of you for my failure and I only hope that it works out in the future.”
Under the USG Financial Bylaws, “Only signatory members of club/organizations may collect a check or purchase.” Myers said SAB has violated that law, as Cowles and others have picked up checks while not being signatory members, making it difficult to keep track of receipts. SAB’s signatory members include Myers, Berlin and Vice President of Student Life Deron Hill.
But the missing receipts pose a greater risk to SAB in that the organization has until Friday, April 13 to bring its missing receipt count down to two or lower or its budget will be frozen. Myers brought up an even more delicate matter: if he had given Cowles the written consent that Belopolsky could be paid the agreed upon $2,000 and the budget was frozen or the allocation wasn’t approved at that Wednesday’s meeting, Belopolsky would have grounds to sue USG. “I think the rules are there to prevent us from being sued,” Myers said.
Maloof and Myers are both confident that the budget will not be frozen and that the receipts will be easily collected by next Friday. Myers claims that between him and Cowles, he knows of at least six receipts that can be scrapped together immediately. “If my understanding is correct, [the receipts] are just in her office,” said Maloof of the specific receipts Cowles has not submitted.
But until then, SAB will be scrambling to both roll out advertising for inarguably the two most important events of the year while collecting its missing receipts. But no matter what happens in the coming weeks, Kirnbauer is still down an assistant treasurer, despite Myers’ claim that he will continue to help out despite having no voting power, and SAB’s money is rife with ever-increasing controversy that has made this year’s USG a record convolution.