UA Finboard Hears Funding GrievancesBySanjay Basu
As part of ongoing discussions on how to revise the current system of funding allocations to student activities, concerned students met with Undergraduate Association Finance Board officials last Thursday to discuss the way student organizations obtain money to pay for their expenses.
Student treasurers who came to the meeting discussed the system of reimbursements and argued against the spending caps and restrictions that divide an organization's money into several separate funds designated for specific expenditures. The use of Finboard funds to buy food was also discussed.
On the top of the list of complaints was the issue of reimbursements.
"It's a paradox," said Class of 2001 President Andrew D. Montgomery '01. "You can't coordinate an event until you know how much money you'll get and you can't get money until you tell them what your event budget will be."
Paul E. Michel '99 said, "usually, we spend the money and get reimbursed from FinboardŠ but to really throw a big event, you can't spend a lot of money and hope to get reimbursed for any unexpected expensesŠ I would much rather have money first and take less of a risk."
Under current Finboard rules, student organizations must submit a yearly budget proposal to Finboard prior to the beginning of each term. Finboard then approves some or all of the expenditures listed on the budget proposal.
When a student organization plans an event, the organization must first pay for the event without outside funding and later receive reimbursements from the Finboard. Finboard will only reimburse student organizations for those expenditures listed in the approved budget proposal.
Finboard responds to criticism
According to Finboard officials, the amount of money available to fund student organizations is far short of demand. UA Treasurer Edgar H. Martinez '00 reported that just more than $285,000 is available to fund all student organizations requesting Finboard financing.
Of that money, $23,000 is available for the appeals process, during which student organizations attempt to obtain more money from the Finboard than that allotted to them after the first review of their budget proposals.
Finboard officials also mentioned that some organizations request several thousand dollars at a time far more than Finboard can give to just one group.
Proposing an alternative to the reimbursement system, some students at the meeting suggested that organizations be given individual MIT bank accounts from which they could withdraw money. But many others immediately rejected the idea, saying that the bank account system would make it difficult to monitor improper spending.
Students discuss restrictions
Student group leaders also criticized how money allocated in budget compilations and appeals are set into different categories of expenditures, giving groups little leeway to give extra money from something that was overbudgeted to offset any extra unexpected expenses.
Outgoing Equestrian Team Treasurer Cynthia A. Randles '99 said, "We were given a certain amount of money for transportation and some other money for safety equipment. The cost of transportation was more than we expected because of insurance, but we ended up with extra money because our safety equipment was cheaper than we expected."
"Rather than spending our surplus safety money to pay for the transportation, we had to pay for the extra transportation costs from our pocket," she said.
"We couldn't use the safety money for anything but safety equipment, even if we had bought all the safety equipment we needed. The budget rules prevented us from using the extra money we had because it was for an expenditure that the safety money had not been designated for."
However, UAofficials were quick to respond.
"Unfortunately, there's a real need for these expense restrictions," Montgomery said. "Sometimes people say, ŒWe'll just purchase whatever we want and turn in reports that say we spent the money on something else. They [Finboard] won't know.' That's why the Finboard asks for receipts and has to be really specific when they give out money."
Jennifer K. Chung '01, president of the Society for Creative Anachronism, said, "It seems that the schedule for Finboard is awkward. You get your chance to make a budget requestŠ but what happens when somebody says, ŒHey, let's do some event next term.' Suppose that event wasn't listed on your original budget request. What then?"
Finboard member Ticora V. Jones '00 replied, "There is a way to get around that. The problem is that most student organizations don't know this. We've had problems in organizations with treasurers and information."
Jones and other Finboard members had scheduled several informational events last term for treasurers of student organizations. Few attended any of these sessions, according to Jones.
Electronic bookkeeping discussed
In an attempt to make money management easier for student treasurers, Association of Student Activities Treasurer Matthew L. McGann '00 detailed a new pilot plan to convert paper applications to electronic form. "Right now, the top spending groups have come together as part of a pilot plan called SAP. You basically call up a data sheet that tells you how much your group spent and where it spent that money."
"Eventually, students will be able to write checks and make deposits electronically," he added.
Though only five groups are currently using the system, McGann said he plans to have at least ten to fifteen entered soon and have all student groups entered by the beginning of next year.
"I feel that SAP is going to make the entirety of student finances more dynamic and efficient," he said. "I think treasurers will have an easier time keeping track of money, especially in large student organizations."
Jones added that many treasurers are having problems with Finboard because they do not remember what money they allotted for specific expenses.
"You are supposed to keep a copy of the budget you submit [to Finboard]," she said. "But most people don't, and so they have no idea how much they originally allotted for their expensesŠ we end up receiving receipts for things we can't pay for because the treasurer did not realize that these items were not on the original budget proposal."
Not all students in the audience thought that carelessness was to blame for most Finboard problems. "The problem," Montgomery said, "is that when people need an extra $50, they request an extra $200 because they think that's the only way to get the money they need. That practice really takes away money from the larger pool we have, and so we really need to concentrate on balancing money between student groups."
Several students in the audience agreed that overreporting of expenses was a major issue. Few, however, proposed solutions to the problem.
Students discuss food restrictions
The final topic discussed at last week's Finboard meeting was food. Under current rules, student organizations are only allowed to spend money on cultural food, though Finboard members admit that the wording of this regulation is vague.
"We basically take each individual case, and see if there's a good reason to spend money on food," said Finboard member Rima A. Arnaout '02. "We don't give money to people who want to eat pizza at their meetings. But we will give it to a religious group who must supply specific types of food for a cultural event. One of the main reasons we do that is because cultural food of this type is often more expensive than regular food and the group's event usually requires it."
Many students at the meeting wanted to be able to include non-cultural food on their budgets because it would attract more people to their events.
"I held an organization event and a large portion of the people came because they wanted the pizza that I had paid for myself," said East Campus Treasurer Lex Nemzer '00.
UA President Paul T. Oppold '99 disagreed with this reasoning. "I have a friend who heads a scuba club and he wants to have pizza there. But are you attracting people who want to scuba, or are you just attracting people who have no interest in the club and simply want free food? Who would you rather have in your organization?"
Nemzer said, "Out of a group of about seven people who said they were interested in pizza alone, two have since gotten involved in our organization and are now two of the most active members of the club."
Debate continued on the food issue and some students suggested that organizations be allowed to have food for one or two events per term.
"But many organizations attempt to stretch any of the rules we have and abuse their money," said Montgomery. "It seems that if we had our own police force to go to all these events, we wouldn't need to have such stringent rules. Unfortunately, we don't have that kind of manpower."
McGann added that many student organizations simply need to know how the finance system is supposed to work and how to use it properly.
"A lot of people have misconceptions about the problems we do an don't have. That's the first thing to fix."