On Monday, with a little over a month before the end of SSMU Council’s term, SSMU executives released an open letter to the administration regarding Shatner building lease negotiations, now ongoing for nearly three years.
If a new lease is not signed and approved by Council by April 30 – which this year’s executives admit is a possibility – lease negotiations will be passed on to a new executive for a third consecutive time, marking the fourth year of such negotiations.
They conceded in their letter “that running such a building has a cost [and] that the University is facing tough financial decisions,” but insisted that the University acknowledge the “massive value” of student life, and its responsibility to help SSMU achieve its core mission.
Deputy Provost (Student Life and Learning) Morton Mendelson told The Daily in an email that he doesn’t “disagree with anything in [the executives’] letter,” but that “unfortunately, the University Centre is an extremely expensive building to run, and McGill can no longer afford to support it as much as it has in the past.”
“McGill, like other Quebec universities, is unexpectedly facing extreme budget compression along with uncertainty about funding for the years ahead,” he continued.
But according to SSMU VP (Clubs & Services) Allison Cooper, since the provincial budget cuts, the proposals for the lease put forth by the University have not really changed. Instead, she says, the University’s “discourse” has changed.
“It’s meant more excuses,” Cooper said.
SSMU President Josh Redel sees a certain irony in the arguments McGill has been making to the government following cuts to university budgets, especially when contrasted with its plans for SSMU.
“Yes, we’re in a financial reality on planet Earth in Canada; in Quebec that requires cuts across everything,” he told The Daily. “[But] the University’s response has been, ‘Do you realize that these cuts threaten…the core mission of this University?’”
Noting this tone, Redel said some demands made by the University would “very much threaten the core mission of SSMU.”
SSMU executives are also frustrated with how drawn-out the process has been. The uncertainty that comes with operating a building without a master lease has become increasingly problematic, they argue. It entails nine-month subleases with second-floor tenants, postponed renovations, and a hesitancy to invest in long-term projects, such as a student-run cafe.
The content of lease negotiations are confidential – an added source of frustration, according to the executives’ letter – but the main points of contention have been a rent increase, the length of the lease, and the implementation of a cost-sharing system for the building’s utilities.
Despite the terms of the lease being far from complete, Redel believes that the Society will “very likely” have to hike the non-opt-outable fee it levies from students, and SSMU has already begun to tighten its belt.
In November, SSMU released a budget with a $211,320 projected deficit, which SSMU VP (Finance and Operations) Jean-Paul Briggs attributed in large part to estimates of future shared utility costs with the University.
To reduce the deficit, SSMU abolished a series of “non-essential” expenditures, cut the position for one full-time building manager, and dipped into the Student Life Fund.