Faced with the recent failure of the referendum question regarding the implementation of the Shatner building fee, councillors and executives at the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Legislative Council meeting on March 27 shifted blame and accusations amongst themselves regarding the fee’s failure. In the case a new referendum question should fail to pass, Council also discussed a contingency budget involving extreme cuts to SSMU clubs and services.
Building fee and contingency budget
On March 21, a crucial referendum question regarding the future of SSMU’s finances failed to pass, only receiving 46.4 per cent of student votes in favour. The question involved a non-opt-outable $6.08 per semester fee levy for full-time students to cover the costs of SSMU’s new lease, recently signed by SSMU and the McGill administration after four years of negotiations. The failure of the fee puts the financial future of SSMU, and the functionality of the SSMU building, in jeopardy.
The failed fee has caused heated debate within the McGill community, with blame being passed between students and the executive. At Council, SSMU President Katie Larson addressed recent accusations of blame that have surfaced in campus media.
“Student involvement is a two-way street,” said Larson. “Could we have run a yes campaign? Of course. But at the end of the day, I shouldn’t have to explain to students why they should find something important. […] It’s not just my fault, it’s not just the executive’s fault – it’s everybody’s fault.”
In a statement given later on in the meeting, Clubs Representative Zachary Rosentzveig criticized Council for failing to assume its responsibilities. He blamed the failed fee on councillors’ complacency in approving the lease, and expressed disappointment with Council’s level of involvement throughout the year.
“Those sitting around this table have expressed publicly and privately an altogether unoriginal mix of bitterness. I’d like to remind Council today that we’re not exempt from responsibility,” said Rosentzveig.
“We speak with arrogance about the power of our positions and the importance of our decisions, and far less so of our responsibilities as elected representatives. This council is tasked with defending the interests of McGill’s undergraduate students, and throughout this year we have completely failed. We provide neither service nor representation, and certainly not leadership.”
In a presentation to Council, Chief Electoral Officer Ben Fung explained that the current bylaws make it impossible to put the building fee to a special referendum before the end of the semester. President Katie Larson suggested that an early referendum could be held before the end of the Fall 2014 add/drop period, or, alternatively, that a double fee could be charged in the Winter 2015 semester if the levy passes in the regular Fall referendum.
“This council is tasked with defending the interests of McGill’s undergraduate students, and throughout this year we have completely failed. We provide neither service nor representation, and certainly not leadership.” – Zachary Rosentzveig, Clubs Representative
VP Finance and Operations Tyler Hofmeister presented a contingency draft of the 2014-15 budget, on the basis that SSMU must fulfill its constitutional mandate to break even in the case that the building fee fails to be adopted when put to referendum again. The final draft of the budget will be brought before Council for approval at its last meeting on April 10.
Proposed avenues to cut spending and increase revenue include the reduction or elimination of the Club Fund, price increases at Gerts, reduced hours of operation in the Shatner building, the halving of the IT budget, and cuts to expenses associated with executive portfolios – although not decreases in executive salaries, according to an email Hofmeister sent to The Daily.
Arts Representative Ben Reedijk suggested that Council consider charging rent to student services and clubs for the offices that they occupy. In response, Hofmeister pointed to the difficulty of establishing a fair scheme, and also raised concerns of financial transparency.
“That is still incredibly sketchy to take from student fees specifically for the running of these services, and instead use it to support the building,” Hofmeister said. “That’s not financially transparent in any regard.”
David Olmstead, Operations Coordinator of WalkSafe, a volunteer service that provides free night-time accompaniment to students, noted that a revocation of after-hours access to the Shatner building would be “devastating.” He added that being charged rent at the market rate for the office would be “completely financially unsustainable,” as the amount would represent double the group’s operating budget.
“That is still incredibly sketchy to take from student fees specifically for the running of these services, and instead use it to support the building.” – Tyler Hofmeister, VP Finance and Operations
Hofmeister added that the Nest, the student-run café, will see changes to the menu and a reduction in student involvement in its operations. The Nest, which needs to break even to fit within the contingency budget, is currently operating at a deficit of $11,000.
Even after all the proposed changes, $20,000 more in cuts must be made before the draft budget can be presented at the next council meeting.
Rosentzveig and VP University Affairs Joey Shea put forward a motion to provide support for McGill students facing difficulties when trying to register to vote in the upcoming provincial election. The movers called on SSMU to offer support and resources to these students, as well as to take a stance in their defence.
Hofmeister motioned to dissolve the Finance Committee, citing an overall lack of productivity. A motion was also brought forward to amend the SSMU Communications Guide, altering the review process for posters put up as part of a sponsorship agreement.
The three motions passed.