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An inside look at SSMU and PGSS finances

McGill student societies pursue financial reform

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Just what exactly do SSMU and PGSS do with all of your money? “Have a look” is the answer that this year’s VP Finances are likely to tell you.

In his first six months in office, Adrian Kaats, VP Finance for the Post-Graduate Students’ Society (PGSS) and former Daily columnist has revamped and streamlined the society’s budget. He separated all revenues and expenses into categories that matched those of a third party auditor’s, so that students are able to see the specific amounts PGSS has spent on a certain item, with the numbers backed up by an independent assessment of the finances.

In previous years, when comparing the year-end audit reports to the final, year-end budget, the average student would have difficulties verifying the accuracy of the budget, said Kaats. Money that was allocated to sections of the budget might appear in different sections in the auditor’s report or be lumped together with different categories of funds.

Of the new budget, Kaats said, “There’s so much transparency that it is nearly impossible for people to mistake what we are doing if they are interested in discovering [it].”

“It’s very difficult for the PGSS to perform in a way that’s not indicating [what] it’s doing,” he continued.

The revamped PGSS budget is projecting a cash deficit of $65,281 for this year. SSMU, on the other hand, came out of last year with a $515,556 surplus. The most recent SSMU budget, approved by legislative council in November, is projecting to break even.

Transparency of society finances is also a priority for Shyam Patel, VP Finance of SSMU.

“I do have students who come to me sometimes and ask to see the finances of SSMU,” Patel said.  “It’s more than encouraged. Students can come in and ask, ‘Where did you spend money?’ and it is my responsibility to show [them].”

Long-term financial plans are priorities for PGSS and SSMU. PGSS is working on a daycare space for the dependents of graduate students, and is hoping to combine miscellaneous bursaries into a single fund to cut administration costs, and also to achieve better returns on McGill’s investment portfolio.

Having a singular fund will also improve accessibility for the various bursaries since, under the current scheme, students may get rejected because of a lack of money in the specific fund to which they are applying.

“In one year you might see a great deal of need in one of the areas and not in the other, so the money accumulates in a pool here while another bunch of people are rejected,” said Kaats. “It isn’t fair that somebody apply to the fund at time X and then, five months later, because we spent all the money on that, at time Y, somebody with the exact same need gets rejected because we were spending too quickly.”

SSMU’s long term financial plans include the creation of a student-run cafe in 2013. Patel said a financial plan, which requires the approval of legislative council, would allow for continuity from year to year between the successive SSMU VP Finances, and “so that the teams coming in have an idea of what the projects are.”

Both Kaats and Patel bemoaned the lack of training they received for their positions. Kaats – who was elected interim VP Finance last winter – said much of his training came from the math work he did as part of his engineering degree.

“There is no training at PGSS,” he said. “It’s a very, very serious problem.”

“The mathematics of [the job] is pretty simple, and if you’re attuned to system design in general,” he continued. “The difficulty lies in the political aspect of making appropriate judgement calls.”

Patel, as SSMU Funding Coordinator in 2010-2011, worked closely with his predecessor Nick Drew and said he still felt less than prepared for his role as VP Finance.

“For my successor, I’m going to be a little bit different. For my successor, training will be very, very rigid,” he said.