Finding itself under severe budgetary constraints, the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) will once again seek approval of the University Centre building fee in the Fall 2014 referendum, it having been rejected by students in the Winter 2014 referendum. The fee was introduced to pay rent and utilities costs for the Shatner building, which have increased almost twofold in virtue of the lease agreement signed by McGill and SSMU last March. The signing of the lease, which covers a ten-year period from 2011 to 2021, followed almost four years of negotiations.
The non-opt-outable fee levy proposed in the Winter referendum amounted to $6.08 and $3.04 per semester for full-time and part-time students respectively, increasing at a yearly rate of 5.6 per cent to cover planned increases in costs. For the Fall referendum, the fee has been slightly lowered to adjust for an increase in the number of students.
Having approved the question in February, SSMU Council did not form a ‘yes’ committee to campaign for the fee in preparation of the Winter referendum. The referendum question failed to pass, with 53.6 per cent of students voting against levying the new fee.
Since its constitution forbids it from running a deficit, SSMU was forced to come up with a contingency budget, which included a reduction in building hours, an increase in fees for SSMU Mini Courses, and cuts to the personal budgets of SSMU executives (though not their salaries). At its last meeting of the year on April 10, Council approved the budget and resolved to ask the building fee question again in the Fall referendum.
According to VP Finance and Operations Kathleen Bradley, the contingency budget will be in effect until October, at which point Council will be revising the budget regardless of the result of the referendum.
Bradley added that the contingency budget is not financially sustainable in the long run because it stops the yearly transfers of $50,000 to SSMU’s Capital Expenditures Reserve Fund. This fund is used for long-term projects such as the renovation of Gerts and the opening of the student-run cafe.
“If the building fee question doesn’t pass, we will continue to be unable to make that transfer, which is seriously going to impact our ability to maintain the building, to improve the building, [and to] make long-term renovations,” Bradley explained.
In an interview with The Daily, President Courtney Ayukawa emphasized the necessity of informing students on the importance of the fee. “I think my big thing on this is really ensuring that everyone has the information made public and accessible to them so that people can make an educated and informed vote,” she said.
Ayukawa went on to note that many students regretted their vote in the Winter referendum once they were more informed about the issue.
“Unfortunately, in the time following last year’s referendum not passing […] I received a lot of feelings of regret from a lot of people around the campus. Right now, I really want to make sure people know what they’re voting for this time, and if […] it doesn’t pass, then at least I know that people made an informed vote,” Ayukawa added.
Ayukawa further explained that there is nothing in SSMU’s bylaws that would prevent it from asking a referendum question that has already failed.
“Something that would not allow for us to re-ask the question is a moratorium period, which is basically this idea that if something does not pass, it cannot be asked within one year,” said Ayukawa. “That currently is nonexistent in our constitution.”
When asked about the University’s course of action in the event that the budget question fails to pass for a second time, Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Ollivier Dyens said, “I am not going to comment on things that may or may not happen. […] We don’t want to comment one way or another and unduly influence the [referendum].”
Although certain Canadian universities, such as the University of British Columbia, lease their student union buildings for a small symbolic fee, Dyens argued that McGill’s model is fair.
“We provide SSMU with free space, which is where the offices of SSMU are located,” said Dyens. “[The] Shatner building runs commercial operations. It is on top of what the student group already receives. […] It is real estate that is expensive for the University.”
Commenting on the lease, Ayukawa noted that the current executive is not responsible for its signing.
“This legacy of the lease and the building fee not passing – but mainly the greater lease history – is very much a thing that we’ve inherited,” said Ayukawa. “At this point we’re just trying to do our best to move forward with it, in a way that is best for all of the students on campus.”