(Wendy Chen / McGill Tribune)

SSMU finances jeopardized by University Centre Fee referendum failure

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The failure of the University Centre Building Fee question in the Winter referendum could lead to drastic cuts to the services provided by the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU).

The proposed fee would have cost $6.08 for full-time students and $3.04 for part-time students per semester and was intended to cover the cost of rent and utilities for the SSMU Building under the new lease agreement between SSMU and McGill.

Results released by Elections SSMU on March 21 show that 53.6 per cent of students voted against the first part of this two-part question and 60.8 per cent against the second part, which would have indexed the fee for inflation.

“This is catastrophic for SSMU,” Vice-President Finance and Operations Tyler Hofmeister said. “This is going to mean a huge reduction in the services the SSMU is able to provide and jeopardize our sustainability in the long term.”

According to Vice-President University Affairs Joey Shea, the budget cuts needed to meet this lack of funding could run up to $200,000.

“We ran a $90,000 deficit this year because we couldn’t afford to pay what was thought [would be] the fees if we were to have signed the lease,” Shea said. “Next year, it’s another $200,000 more […] so it’s $300,000 worth of services that will be cut from students.”

Services that may face cuts include Gerts, the Student-Run Café, the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS), and the McGill Student Emergency Response Team (M-SERT), according to Shea.

One option for SSMU is to hold a special referendum period before the end of classes, putting the same question to the vote again. However, unless the bylaws are amended at Council on Thursday, there will not be enough time in the remainder of the school year to do so.

“Currently there isn’t enough time based on the guidelines set out by the bylaws,” said Chief Electoral Officer Ben Fung. “That being said, the bylaws can still change.”

Hofmeister said SSMU had already begun to take precautions in case funding for the lease could not be secured before the end of the academic year.

“I’ve been in talks with many of the services, creating their budgets for the new fiscal year, with many services relying on the SSMU lease fee,” he said. “I’ll likely have to make two budgets; one in the case that we can pass a special referendum and one if we can’t.”

SSMU President Katie Larson said students did not do their part to understand the stakes of the referendum question.

“People clearly didn’t read the context of the question,” she said. “They don’t understand that we had to pass it because we now have to pay that much more money, and we don’t have that money coming in.”

However, students have criticized the SSMU executive for not explaining the reasoning and importance of such a fee. Kylar Daigle, U0 Arts, said he was confused about the question because it was not clearly explained on the ballot.

“I think the referendum poorly expressed what the consequences of this vote could be,” Daigle said. “I am certain that specification or more emphasis on the “cut services” would have changed the outcome. Surely the student population is willing to pay a mere $12—relatively nothing next to their tuition costs—to avoid losing Gerts and various student clubs and programs.”

The phrasing of the question does not specify what services would be affected or the consequences of a “No” vote.

“Without this fee, the SSMU would have to cut services to students in order to afford rent and utilities payments to McGill,” the preamble reads.

In addition, there was no “Yes” committee formed to campaign and raise awareness of the question. Shea acknowledged that SSMU had not done enough throughout the referendum period to inform students.

“I think we didn’t make it clear enough to students how necessary this fee was, which was obviously the fault of myself and Katie [Larson],” she said.

Larson said she hopes students will reconsider their vote in a special referendum for the question.

In order to hold a special referendum, a motion must be submitted to the council steering committee, and then pass by majority in Council.

Ben Reedijk, a member of the steering committee, confirmed that a motion to hold a special referendum had been submitted Monday.

Larson stressed the necessity of passing the motion.

“We literally can’t wait,” Larson said. “We have to pay it this year—it’s not an option.”

  • fairness

    Money is the universal measure for success. Gerts, CKUT or whatever it is must be self sufficient if not profitable. People vote with their money when they go to Gerts. If Gerts is not self sufficient it means only a select group of people go to Gerts and it is not fair that ALL students must subsidies it for them.

    • Get a grip

      Well at least now we know who the shit heads who voted ‘No’ are.

    • Fact Checker

      Gerts is not only self-sufficient but is actually running a profit and subsidizing the rest of the society right now, not the other way around. The select group that is going to Gerts and spending money is actually subsidizing the cost of having student staff who help administer SSMU’s clubs and services. You have it backwards.

    • Dinosaur

      CKUT is an independent student group, and the fees they levy are also indepedent – no financial relation to SSMU.

  • Travis

    This is bullshit, why should the students be responsible for the SSMU exec’s incompetency? Fore example losing 30K during frosh because they didn’t know they had to pay taxes, I would be more sympathetic if they took some responsibility for their failure like garnished salaries. But the SSMU execs are completely unapologetic about running such a massive deficit, and acting like we owe them that money.
    And the audacity of Katie for suggesting another vote on the same issue, I didn’t know democracy meant making people vote until she gets the results she wants. $12 means nothing to me, but her actions are insulting – “You voted wrong, idiot, vote again”. 60% of people voted against SSMU using the students like their own piggy bank; you should respect our wishes, be more fiscally responsible and cut costs, like the rest of the University.

    • Thomas

      I agree with you on the 30k frosh deficit- that was a gross oversight. That being said, SSMU made large cuts this year across the board. Normally Execs receive a food allowance due to 80+ hour work weeks, this year the food allowance was completely cut.

      The deficit is from the University Center lease, not from the Frosh deficit, and this isn’t asking Students to pay for the mistakes of the executives, it’s asking students to pay for the building. I agree that it is everyone’s responsibility to understand the referendum question, but SSMU definitely should have communicated this better.

      The reason I think that these people want another vote on the same issue is because they don’t think students understood what the costs of this referendum failing would be. They’re probably going to try and pass another question and if you, knowing the consequences of not passing this question, vote NO, then that’s democracy succeeding. If students really want higher prices in The Nest, Gerts, a building that is less taken care of, and shittier services, that’s really everyones decision, but I think it should be an informed one.

      • Calem Bendell

        No bias here at all.
        Nope.

        • MarkLafue

          Are you seriously complaining about bias in an internet comment?

          • Calem Bendell

            It’s just a shame. The comment started off so reasonable and then you hit the last sentence.

    • Jake

      To be fair, the result of voting no was not clearly explained. It should have read “a vote of no will result in subsequent voting until a majority vote of yes is achieved”

  • Erin

    I haven’t seen anyone comment that this is EXACTLY what happened with the board of directors motion and the Special GA last semester.

    • ElieLubendo

      SSMU cannot legally make any decisions without a Board of Directors. Without the appointment of the BoD, no decisions are binding and many portfolios cannot even function (i.e. the SSMU’s financial investments).

      Also, electing the BoD didn’t cost anything and students never voted against it before it being brought to Special Referendum. So, no, it’s a very different situation.

      • Erin

        Fine, perhaps too much stress on “exactly.” I understand that completely – what I was referring to was the lack of outreach on the motion, the resulting lack of understanding of its importance, and the need for a special GA or referendum afterwards in order to push it through. I don’t think we can blame either case entirely on student apathy, so this pattern seems to suggest the need for improvements in communication or engagement (e.g. outreach campaigns that stress the relevance of these motions to services like Gert’s, M-SERT, SACOMSS, etc).

  • Fact Checker

    To fairness: Gerts is not only self-sufficient but is actually running a profit and subsidizing the rest of the society right now, not the other way around. The select group that is going to Gerts and spending money is actually subsidizing the cost of having student staff who help administer SSMU’s clubs and services. You have it backwards.

    • Broletariate

      So, out of the potential services they could shut down, it would be pretty silly of them to pick Gerts. So they are just joking about Gerts and using it to cause a stir around a referendum that would otherwise go ignored, the goal of which is to prevent cutbacks on services that are for the most part ignored.

      • Fact Checker

        Nope. Gerts would probably see price increases so that it could subsidize the rest of the society to a greater extent. It would be reasonable to pick Gerts knowing that the bar has the potential to generate a lot more revenue than it currently does.

        • Broletariate

          You misunderstand. The deliberately ambiguous use of ‘jeoparidized’ and ‘services that may face cuts’ leads some to believe the existence of Gerts is being threatened. Which is certainly not the case. Raising prices may be viable in the short-term but it in the long term it will do nothing until the real problem — the enthusiastic mismanagement of resources — is addressed.

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  • ElieLubendo

    I think it should be noted that prior to this referendum period only three questions out of roughly 50-60 have failed since Winter 2007. First, CKUT in Winter 2012 because they wanted to make their annual $8.00 fee ($4.00 for part-time students) non-opt-outable. Second, CKUT in Winter 2007 for trying to gradually increase their fee from $4.00 a semester ($2.00 for part-time students) to $6.04 over a 2 year period. Third, the McGill Daily in Winter 2007 for trying to increase their fee levy from $1.50 to $6.50. I would agree with the sentiment that most students vote ‘Yes’ or ‘Abstain’ on the majority of fees without really thinking about them. However, for a fee to be voted down by the majority of voters there really must be an issue there–especially given the fact that they rarely ever fail. It’s not a coincidence that this is the only question out of 11 that failed.

    Also, I think some things need to be clarified. I don’t understand why SACOMSS and MSERT would lose funding. These two SSMU Services have the largest fee-levy budgets and their fee levies were added on top of the SSMU Student Fee a couple years ago so that students couldn’t opt out. (One could argue that they should have ran a non-opt-outable referendum instead). Even though those two Services are a part of the SSMU Budget, students explicitly voted to have the allocation of those fees sent to those groups through referendum questions. So they shouldn’t take a hit at all since they are technically self-funded through their own fee levy. I would love to hear the justifications for cutting the budgets of these services given that they passed their independent fee levies. Also, if we start taking money from the independent budgets of services, Midnight Kitchen and Queer McGill would take hits before SACOMSS and MSERT since they roughly spend $60,000 and $20,000 on salaries respectively.

    Effectively, this deficit would result in a large amount of cuts in staff positions and operating hours for the SSMU Building due to high HR costs. This would probably result in having stricter internal financial regulations (i.e. Services would be disallowed to run deficits or face losing their funding and caps on discretionary funding), and a large decrease in the performance from groups that use the SSMU Building to work (Player’s Theater, Publications, etc.). I’m interested to see the proposed budget if we were to run the $300,000 deficit. Only then will we be able to know the “size” of these cuts and how much they will affect students. What will happen if the Special Referendum fails?

    • ponyboy

      the fact that you, as a SSMU councillor, don’t have the answers to these questions is very telling of SSMU’s issues with transparency

  • Hank

    Katie and the rest should figure out a way to raise $300K for their mistake then. Not only were these consequences not mentioned, but it is STILL unclear if they are even justified. Why don’t they release a cash-flow statement including how every dollar is spent at SSMU before we hold ‘special votes’ and pay for what could be mismanagement.

  • Merton

    I will just put that here:

    Salaries and benefit in 2011: Roughly 650,000$
    http://ssmu.mcgill.ca/wp-content/uploads/2011/02/SSMU-Budget-2011-2012.pdf

    Salaries and benefit proposed in 2014: 1,143,820$
    http://ssmu.mcgill.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/09/Addendum-Revised-Fall-Budget-2013-2014.pdf

    That is an increase of 76%, while inflation was 5.08% in the same period (cumulative).

    Don’t look in a referendum, look in the blatant gift that the SSMU is giving its self.

  • Student

    Katie Larson, and the rest of the SSMU execs should not be putting any sort of blame on the student body for this outcome. If SSMU wanted the student body to fully understand what they were voting for, why not publicize what they mean by an increased “University Centre Fee”? I know that most students are busy now with exams, papers, group work, etc. and do not have the time to read a an entire document outlining what they are voting for. The SSMU team should know better than that…

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