I must applaud the University of Wyoming’s Board of Trustees for deciding it can eat cheaper food and not spend $5,500 on a huge tent and tables it only used once.
This is a time for austerity in state government and higher education, and it’s appropriate that the people who guide UW policies look for ways to tighten their proverbial belt like everyone else. Gov. Matt Mead told trustees last week that he’s asked all state agencies to prepare to reduce their budgets by 8 percent for the 2016-17 biennium.
UW’s Board of Trustees had a projected budget of $240,000 for Fiscal Year 2015. It actually spent $302,000. Last Friday trustees approved a $229,000 budget for FY 2017 and said they planned to hold spending to that amount. It’s only a small slice to the university’s overall budget, but it sends the right message. If the entire institution must take a hit due to falling energy prices that bring in less tax money to the state coffers, the governing board was right to first look at items it can do without.
There were quite a few of them. Last year nearly $132,000 was spent using UW’s plane to fly trustees who live farther than 200 miles from the Laramie campus so they can attend the board’s half-dozen annual meetings. The proposed air transportation budget was cut to $90,000 for FY 2017.
According to a thorough account of the trustees’ meeting by Laramie Boomerang reporter Thaddeus Mast, the board also cut about $5,000 it spent annually on a printing service to gather newspaper articles throughout the nation and send a weekly packet of clips to four trustees and a few administrators. There’s an easier, much less expensive way to keep track of university news. It’s called “Google.”
Trustee Mike Massie told his colleagues that even though the clipping service was only about 2 percent of the board’s total budget, every little bit helps save money. Massie also criticized the board’s $5,626 expenditure for a tent, tables and linen to host a large community event in 2015.
“When we’re thinking about the choices other people on campus are going to have to make — there’s going to be some departments that are going to be telling Mary you can’t come to work tomorrow, or tell someone they have to clean two buildings instead of one without overtime. I think we can get rid of a tent we used one time,” the Laramie trustee said.
Massie also noted that if you examine last year’s budget of $240,000, the new figure of $229,000 for FY 2017 is only about a 5 percent cut. That’s a more accurate assessment of the board’s new budget than the $73 million in savings you get when you compare next year’s total of $229,000 to the $302,000 the board actually spent.
[In the interest of full disclosure I must tell you that Massie has been a friend of mine for many years, ever since he was elected to the Wyoming House. We’re also competitors in the same fantasy baseball league.]
It may surprise some people, but food was also a fairly big ticket item for the trustees. Catering expenses totaled more than $61,000 last year, but the board has reduced the amount to $32,000.
Part of the savings will come from the new practice of having the trustees eat a morning meal on their meeting days instead of having a working pre-session. “We save $2,000 a meeting if we eat beforehand and then come to the meeting,” trustee John McKinley said.
The budget still includes about $12,000 for two meals each meeting — one prepared by UW’s dining services and the other by a local restaurant. “I can go to a lot of really good steakhouses and other places and get a lot better meal for a lot lower than $40-$50,” said trustee Mel Baldwin. “In my mind, it seems very excessive, and I think we could do better.” Instead of a buffet, board members are now eating a packed lunch.
I have a confession to make. When I used to cover UW board meetings in the 1990s, a nice mid-morning snack was prepared for the trustees. The four or five journalists who regularly attended these meetings jammed into a small room off the boardroom and inhaled as much food as possible. I probably took advantage of this treat the most, especially on days I didn’t eat breakfast before driving from Cheyenne to Laramie.
I rationalized this a couple ways. First, I think it would have probably disturbed the meeting if I passed out in my chair from malnourishment. Second, no one ever said this excellent perk was off limits to reporters, although they may have just been being polite to us. Knowing how little reporters get paid, maybe some trustees thought it might be our only meal of the day.
I did frequently enter the snack room with some trepidation, especially on mornings when my articles were published criticizing the board for subsidizing the UW president’s lavish house, or other questionable practices the public had a right to ponder.
Do you know how difficult it is to reach for crackers and cheese and find yourself looking straight into the face of a trustee who thought you maligned him in the morning edition? Fortunately I have a rather thick skin, and I just “cowboy’d” up and made a beeline to the open door.
Now I don’t know how much my partaking of the board’s snacks over a five-year period may have cost the taxpayers, but I do know one thing — I’m not giving the money back, at least until trustees individually pony up and reimburse the state for that tent and tables.
I do vow to never again take food from UW I haven’t paid for, because the expense might have prevented some tuition hikes. Since I no longer cover the UW board, I won’t violate that promise. I know how the fact I’m owning up to this practice may not satisfy everyone, but I’m chalking it up to youthful indiscretion.
This is still quite a sacrifice I’m making, especially if I’m ever hungry and wander into another trustees’ meeting. But it’s worth it because I’m sending the right message to journalists everywhere.
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