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Access to Marshall finances debated

MU budget
Jun. 16, 2013 @ 12:00 AM

HUNTINGTON -- The American Federation of Teachers-West Virginia is questioning how transparent Marshall University's budget really is, claiming the administration has put up roadblocks when it comes to finding detailed financial reports.

"This is indeed an issue about transparency and being forthcoming with information," said Christine Barr, a staff representative with AFT-WV, by email last week.

But Matt Turner, Marshall's chief of staff, and Chief Financial Officer Mary Ellen Heuton said the university's basic budget documents through 2005 are and have been available on the Office of Finance website, similar to what West Virginia University makes available on its website.

However, it lacks the detail that two professors were seeking when they filed Freedom of Information Act requests in late April and May. Those two professors, Dallas Brozik and James Sottile, want detailed budget figures from across university divisions and departments, for which there are about 150.

Interest in Marshall's finances took on a whole new meaning this spring, as cuts in state funding put new pressures on the university's budget. Some faculty members have questioned spending priorities and seek to take a deeper look at where the money goes.

"It is PUBLIC information; our members have a right to review it, and their reasons for requesting it should not become the story," Barr said in the email. "The question readers should be asking is why such financial information is not readily available, or why is Marshall University making it so difficult to review the information."

AFT-WV and both professors filed lawsuits in Cabell Circuit Court June 7 to try to get Marshall to comply with the FOIA requests. They claim the university is attempting to charge outlandish fees for three to five years worth of financial information the two men are seeking.

"When one requests 'information for expenditures by the department/division level for all colleges, the administration, and the athletic department for the last five years,' and the university claims that your request is not specific enough, but that they will produce the information when they receive your check for $54,296.00, it is absolutely an issue of transparency," Barr said.

Turner agrees the professors were seeking public information and there should be access. But he also said it's not as simple as the complainants are making it out to be. Some documents, he said, are not readily available to just post online or send in an email. Others that were requested by Brozik and Sottile would have to be created through the compilation of several documents, he said.

In addition to the basic budget documents that are available on Marshall's Finance website, Turner also said that some of what Sottile requested already exists on the West Virginia Auditor's website, through a VISTA account. It is available for the general public and provides vendor information, how many payments have been made, when the payments were made and for how much and the total amount paid to that vendor. However, there is no breakdown on the auditor's site by department or information about what was purchased.

The budget documents that are available include operating and nonoperating revenues and expenses, broken down into about a dozen broad categories such as tuition, state appropriations, utilities and salaries, and wages.

What is lacking is easy access to department-level budgets, which include revenues from program-specific student fees and such expenses as faculty travel.

Heuton said she sympathizes with those requesting the documents, calling it a struggle to make data digestible. But, she said, it is a product of the accounting system Marshall uses called funds management. It allows departments to manage their own cash flow, though the university has auditors in place to make sure there isn't abuse. Still, she said the figures she can provide are mostly revenues and expenses, without a breakdown of details.

"It's a goal I have, but the system has not been designed that way," Heuton said. "But I think there is a way to get there."

Heuton's comment isn't off base, said Ted Boettner, executive director of the West Virginia Center on Budget & Policy. Boettner, whose group works toward better financial accountability and openness in state government, said access to detailed financial information is difficult to get throughout the state.

"It's been sort of a problem in all the agencies in state government," he said. "Basic information is easier to get, but if you want to get down to the details ... it becomes very difficult."

But Boettner isn't putting all the blame on data processing systems. He also said there seems to be a prevalence of people wanting to "pass the buck."

"Nobody wants to serve as the central source of detailed budget information," he said. "It's really a detriment to increasing accountability and transparency."

Boettner said he wants to see a more uniform set of disclosure standards that spell out what truly must be open and accessible to the public. He added that access to data is sometimes based on relationships and "that's not how it should be at all."

The best way to get a pulse on some of these things is to see what is going on in other states, Boettner said. Budget information for Ohio State University, for example, was easy to find but provided broad revenue and expense figures similar what Marshall and WVU have listed.

At Ohio University, the budget information available online provides much greater depth. It includes breakdowns from a number of areas, including athletics, dining, residential housing and parking.

What also is interesting is that Ohio University is transitioning from a decentralized approach to a budget model that assigns greater control over resource decisions to academic colleges and deans -- similar to the accounting system Marshall has now and wants to move away from.

"Under this budget approach, revenue-generating areas are referred to as 'responsibility centers' with all or most of the institution's revenues and support costs assigned to them," states a description of the budgeting model on Ohio University's website. "(The) underlying premise is that the decentralized nature of the model entrusts academic leaders with more control of financial resources, leading to more informed decision-making and better results or outcomes for the University as a whole."

Heuton and Kopp proposed changing to a centralized accounting model back in April, saying the current model made it difficult to know how departments were spending money. It was tabled by the Board of Governors, partly because of the administration's unpopular decision earlier that month to sweep departmental accounts into a central holding account for assessment. It was done without prior notice to faculty or deans.

That led to a vote of no confidence by faculty and a call by the board for Kopp to rebuild trust. That also led to the creation of a budget work group, which included constituents from across the university who helped the administration reach a balanced budget that was approved last week. Most of those involved have said the group was helpful in learning about some of the inner workings of the budget.

"Personally, I am satisfied with what the group achieved in the given time-frame," said Shane Tomblin, an associate professor in the College of Business who was elected by the Faculty Senate to represent the faculty. "It was an ad hoc group tasked with completion of a short-term budget proposal. The information provided was adequate for that immediate objective. However, greater transparency will need to be the goal of the permanent version of the (budget work group) with expanded membership."

Outgoing Student Body President Ray Harrell Jr. agrees with Tomblin's assessment about the working group.

"To my knowledge, any documents or information requested were made available to the group," Harrell said in an emailed statement. "This process allowed each of us, as members, able to take ample information back to our constituencies and follow up on their inquiries."

What's available, what's not

BASIC BUDGET

What is there: Marshall University's basic budget documents are available on the Office of Finance website, www.marshall.edu/finance or www.marshall.edu/finance/budget-services. Those budgets include operating and nonoperating revenues and expenses, broken down into about a dozen broad categories such as tuition, state appropriations, utilities and salaries and wages.

What is not there: Links to any college- or department-level budgets, which also are not listed on those specific websites.

COMPENSATION, VENDOR PAYMENTS

What is there: The West Virginia State Auditor's website, www.wvsao.gov, includes a link to a program called VISTA. It is free for the general public to sign up and provides state employee compensation and vendor payment information for every agency in West Virginia. Under Marshall University, there is a substantial list of vendors who have been paid by Marshall and includes how many payments have been made, when the payments were made and for how much and the total amount paid to that vendor.

What is not there: A breakdown by department or information about what goods or services were purchased.

 

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