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St. Petersburg College board of trustees okayed unfinished budget

In mid May, the St. Petersburg College board of trustees unanimously approved a $145 million operating budget.

But it took 58 days for the college to provide the St. Petersburg Times with a copy of the completed budget.

College budget officials acknowledge the document wasn't finished until July 11. None of the trustees saw a completed budget before they voted to approve it.

The Times made numerous requests for the budget the trustees had approved. In response, staff gave the newspaper several one-page summaries and a slick four-page flier listing the college's priorities. The college also supplied a list of equipment and technology expenses.

But it wasn't until July 14 that staff supplied a line-item budget.

Like other public Florida colleges, St. Petersburg College receives public funding. Its budget is supposed to be open and available to the public.

On Thursday, SPC president Bill Law, who took charge there a little over a year ago, said he was unaware of the delay.

"Whoa," Law said. "Let me apologize. That's inappropriate."

He vowed to make the budget more accessible to the public in the future.

Each community college in Florida is governed by an independent board of trustees. The trustees, appointed by the governor, are charged by state law with making "cost-effective policy decisions" in line with the college's mission.

At SPC, officials say the trustees' role is to set policy, not scrutinize every budget detail. They insist the trustees, who aren't paid, receive sufficient information before voting on the budget.

Here's how this year's budget process worked for SPC trustees:

In January, the trustees met for a workshop to develop priorities. In April, Law presented his proposed budget to the trustees.

From May 11 to 16, each trustee met privately with budget staff for an individual presentation. Staff showed trustees a one-page summary of the proposed $145 million budget. If they had questions, staff would show them details on documents used to prepare the summary.

Trustees did not get a line-item budget, which breaks down finances by department and includes details about revenues and expenditures. Most said they don't need one.

"We create policy. That's our governance model," said Ken Burke, Pinellas clerk of court and chairman of the trustees when the budget was approved. "We're not supposed to be into the weeds with this stuff."

The staff's reaction to Times' inquiries about the budget raised questions about how complete it was the day the board voted.

Jamelle Conner, associate vice president of financial planning, was reluctant to supply spreadsheets used in the trustee presentations.

"There's a lot of blanks because there was stuff I didn't figure out at the time the budget was approved," Conner said.

Doug Duncan, senior vice president of administrative/business services and information technology, minimized those blanks, saying they were mostly account numbers and specific personnel information.

Whatever the case, Duncan said the budget that the Times was supplied in mid July was finished on July 11. The fiscal year began July 1.

Between the May approval and the July completion, he said, staff was rushing to provide information the state Department of Education requires by June 30. The department requests specific financial details and ensures a college isn't operating at a loss, but it doesn't review full budgets.

Law took responsibility for the lag in preparing the budget. He said staff scrambled to keep up with his changes.

"I changed an enormous amount of how we did business," Law said.

He contends the trustees knew where the money was going.

"The board doesn't look at departmental accounts. That's not the board's job," Law said. Its job, he said, is to ensure finances are sound, the budget reflects the college's priorities, and students' needs are met.

Most trustees on SPC's five-member board said they're satisfied with the process. (Only Deveron Gibbons failed to respond to the Times' questions.) Most said they trust the administration and they oversee SPC's financial affairs by shaping policy.

Trustee Dick Johnston said it would be "pretty tough" for the budget staff to "pull something over" on the board.

"I've never seen them do anything to make me think they weren't doing the right thing," Johnston said.

Trustee Evelyn Bilirakis said there is plenty of oversight. "I trust the people that prepare the budget. They've been working for the college for years. They're honest people," she said.

Burke and Johnston are certified public accountants. College officials say they both ask the most questions about finances.

Johnston got a copy of the presentation and spreadsheets via e-mail before his meeting with budget staff. He also sent the budget director a number of questions and requested an accounting of all funds. "All of my questions I got answered. If not, I would have brought it up at the board meeting and said there's something wrong here," he said.

Burke said his meeting with staff lasted about 90 minutes, during which he asked numerous questions, focusing especially on student services and faculty compensation.

Terrence Brett, who replied to Times' questions by e-mail, said his meeting with budget staff was about an hour and covered topics including the impact of faculty raises, tuition increases, higher student enrollments and the loss of federal stimulus funds.

The Times randomly asked two other community colleges to supply a copy of budgets approved by their trustees. Valencia Community College in Orlando provided an immediate link to its budget online.

Hillsborough Community College mailed the Times a 79-page budget book, which arrived in five days. HCC spokeswoman Ashley Carl said trustees review the budget book page by page at a public workshop.

"I think it's the most important thing they vote on," she said.

Law said he's working to make virtually everything at SPC more accessible for the public and the college community.

"Our commitment to transparency was a new commitment and we made huge progress," Law said. "Clearly, if you had to wait two months to get a report, we didn't do it just right."

Lorri Helfand can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4155.

What they say

"We create policy. That's our governance model. We're not supposed to be into the weeds with this stuff."

Ken Burke, trustee

It would be "pretty tough" for the budget staff to "pull something over" on the board. "I've never seen them do anything to make me think they weren't doing the right thing."

Dick Johnston, trustee

"I trust the people that prepare the budget. They've been working for the college for years. They're honest people."

Evelyn Bilirakis, trustee

"The board doesn't look at departmental accounts. That's not the board's job."

Bill Law, SPC


St. Petersburg College board of trustees okayed unfinished budget 07/31/11 [Last modified: Sunday, July 31, 2011 9:54pm]
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