CC reacts to campus dispute over FinCom budget transparency

On Oct. 12 College Council (CC) passed a bylaw clarifying the process by which student groups can discuss their budget allocation with the CC treasurer. CC did so in response to a string of questions recently raised about the transparency of the decisions made by CC’s Finance Committee (FinCom) concerning club budgets. A Williams Students Online (WSO) thread begun on Oct. 1 accused FinCom members of withholding money without reason from clubs and preventing accessibility to the process FinCom uses for approving budgets for clubs. FinCom overhauled its methodology for dividing money throughout College subgroups and groups in 2009, and by the end of this month, its completed and updated list of bylaws and club budget information will be available online.

 

FinCom’s allocation process

 

Before the changes in 2009, FinCom assigned campus groups to subgroups based on general similarities in activities, which were then given a sum of money to allocate among themselves. FinCom member April Jenkins ’14 explained the pitfalls of the old system. “The person with the loudest voice won the most amount of money for their group,” Jenkins said. Additionally, groups with fewer members were overshadowed, and the larger, dominant clubs or groups usually ended up with the largest budget. “Groups that didn’t have as many people were basically put out of money they needed for 17 years, which [was] bad,” Jenkins said.

“There was inherent competition between groups by simply releasing specific allocations [to the groups] without any information surrounding them,” said Francesca Barrett ’12, CC co-president and former CC treasurer. “Groups that were the loudest or buffered their budgets the most would have access to the most money. The groups that were smaller or had tried to remain honest about their financial needs were hurt.”

FinCom was first established in 2001 when CC leaders created the committee to oversee the process of awarding funding. Henceforth, CC appointed eight CC members to FinCom, who then split up groups into classified sub categories.

Before the CC session begins, FinCom members must go through “treasurer training” with the current CC treasurer. After training, FinCom members meet individually with the CC treasurer and go over any remaining details on how to clearly understand and work with a budget. “We also go in depth about how FinCom arrives at every budget proposal, which is all based in the CC bylaws,” FinCom member Adrian Castro ’14 said.

“At the beginning of each year, groups that have been active for two years or more – [called] ‘subgroups’ – meet with FinCom to receive their budgets for the year,” CC treasurer Jack Noelke ’13 said. “After the subgroup process is over, any formally approved group is eligible to request funding.”

The treasurer then sends an e-mail to all the subgroups on campus (subgroups go first in the allocation of funding) and decide a deadline to submit budgets as well as a meeting place and time to discuss the proposed budgets.

“Instead of allocating money to groups exclusively based on their size or other vague criteria, which is what happened under the former system, FinCom looks at specific budget requests from each group,” Noelke said. “These budget requests are based on individual groups’ needs, and they are precise down to the exact penny that each item costs.”

In the meetings, a pair of FinCom members and the presidents of the club or group look at the budget line by line and grant money based on the necessity of each request. They can explain to us why they need that extra tournament, meet or other detail, they can get awarded more money,” Castro said.

FinCom refers to past budgets in the process as well. “We make sure that if one group was awarded $500 one year, they won’t get $2000 the next year if they are requesting the exact same stuff,” Castro said.

A few days after the group meetings, the entire CC sees the finished budget proposals at the first CC meeting of the year, with all CC members able to ask questions and discuss matters pertaining to specific budget allocations or denials.

Part of the reason that budgets may appear drastically cut during the first round of CC funding allocation is that CC can only directly allocate money from the Student Activities Tax (SAT), which comes to a little more than $400,000 a year. The SAT appears on student term bills and goes towards several College organizations and functions, with a percentage amounting to $95 from each student allocated towards CC group funding. This percentage comprises the entire CC budget for the year.

The combined total requested budgets of College groups amounts to around $395,000 a year, and Jenkins explained that FinCom also has to work to retain enough funds to allow for CC events during the year. “CC only has enough money in the SAT to fund about 40-50% of the money requested from it each year,” Noelke said.

“It may seem like a lot, but when you have 59 subgroups, 120 student groups and the rest of the campus planning events, this money can go very quickly,” Jenkins said.

Additionally, groups are allowed to appeal their budget decision. “You’re allowed to appeal to CC if you feel that Fincom was wrong in their allocation,’” Barrett said. “The benefit of the appeals process is that students can talk with the treasurer about specifically [why] this allocation is too little and how the group will be at a disadvantage without greater funds.” Student groups also have opportunities later in the year to receive more funding via other channels. “When we make the decision to cut from a budget, it’s usually because we know that they can get money from a different pot,” Jenkins said.

FinCom Controversy

Earlier this month, the criticism surrounding FinCom grew out of concerns over FinCom’s transparency. Some groups approached CC members directly about the issue; others expressed their thoughts on a heated WSO post, with several comments targeting specific FinCom members. Much of this anger stemmed from a handful of people who wanted to see the line-by-line budgets of the groups’ allocations. Noelke commented on the thread three days after it was posted exsplaining that any person or group that wanted to discuss a group’s budget to contact Noelke instead of arguing on the thread.

“[This issue] started with people not really knowing where you could get this info from,” Castro said, alluding to the fact that all the bylaws and procedures of FinCom are posted online.

“It’s my hope that people now realize that all of this information is readily available online,” Jenkins said. “There’s no real mystery behind this.”

However, FinCom and CC have been taking steps to make information about how simple it is to find budget information more clear. Barrett explained that in the next week or so, CC will be updating its website with a full list of all the student group allocations in order to clear up any lingering frustration surrounding group budgets.  “On the CC website, we will be putting the breakdown of where your student activities goes within each College council fund,” Barrett said.

Along with a greater organization of information, CC has also been working on small changes to its system of funding allocation, as well as extending the treasurer training that FinCom receives to all CC members. These changes will go in effect at the beginning of the next academic year when the new CC steps into place. “One of the problems was that CC members were looking at the budget, and they didn’t really understand it,” Barrett said.

Due to these comments, FinCom will also extend its timeline for its official recommendation for all the group’s budgets prior to the first CC meeting. The change will allow the CC treasurer 24 hours to meet with all the CC members and discuss how they arrived at the budgets for each student group before general discussion in the CC meeting. “I think it’s a really good improvement, because this will allow for more transparency, and CC can also be a better check on FinCom’s decisions,” Barrett said.

Bylaws Changes

In addition to the new budget information, CC also approved a bylaw at its last meeting that makes clearer the fact that students are allowed to view and discuss all budget information with the CC treasurer.

“Since the implementation of the new system, students have always been allowed to see where their SAT dollars go, but it has been a record that must be viewed in person,” Noelke said.  The new bylaw makes this ability much more visible to the individual student.

“[Noelke] will show them the specific breakdown of budget allocations and explain how Fincom came up with those budget allocations,” said Barrett.

Barrett hopes that this clarification in the bylaws will help quell any more dispute surrounding CC transparency with funding and prevent any future frustration.  “This is still a relatively new process, but I really am hopeful that these changes will only benefit the subgroup process,” Barrett said.

While Barrett and the rest of CC hope that these issues surrounding transparency with CC funding will be cleared up by these small clarifications, they realize that funding will always be a complicated procedure likely to evoke confusion.“There will always be some mystery surrounding financials,” Barrett said. “It’s the nature of being the treasurer, the sole student to devote hours upon hours every week to understanding and providing finances [that go into funding student groups].”

Barrett also expressed that CC members operate as students participating in a campus community. “We’re students. We are on College Council because we love the school and we want to make every student’s time here fantastic,” Barrett said. “There’s no need for animosity. If you have a concern, please come to anyone on CC. That’s the reason why we are here.”

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