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'A massive, massive surplus': Student government deals with nearly $1 million in unspent funds

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The UNC Student Government Suite is pictured on Feb. 8, 2023.

Every academic year, the UNC Undergraduate Senate brings in about $500,000 from student fees to fund student government and organizations. Due to low spending during the pandemic, the Undergraduate Senate also carried over $956,022 in unspent funds at the start of the fall semester. 

Despite the wishes of student government officials who want to tap into the unspent funds, the Senate can only allocate around $1.1 million to student organizations this year. It is likely that only a minority of that money will actually be spent due to what Logan Grodsky, the undergraduate student body treasurer, called “a labyrinthine process” for reimbursement.

According to calculations by Grodsky, only 37.53 percent of funds appropriated in the last school year were spent. Partially, this could be because organizations spend less than requested due to canceling events or finding cheaper versions of the needed items. 

Andrew Richards, chairperson of the finance committee for most of the 2021-22 school year, and Deniz Erdal, the current chairperson, fear that much of the gap is because the process for reimbursement is difficult and organizations end up eating the expenses themselves.

“The reimbursement-based process just does not work correctly. It is really, really bad,” Richards said. 

Requests are sent to the student government controller and undergraduate student body treasurer but are often denied for small details, Richards said. The person requesting reimbursement cannot be the same person who made the purchase, and receipts are often found to be inadequate, he said. Except for some large expenditures, organizations have to spend their own funds upfront before being reimbursed.

“A lot of student organizations wanted to do things and got funding from Senate to do things, but didn’t end up being able to access the money," Richards said. "They’re all college students, no one has $1,300 lying around to maybe get back later."

Jamie Henze, the treasurer of the Kamikazi Dance Team, said that the process for requesting funds and reimbursement is “very tedious.”

“There's a lot of just going and searching and finding, and a lot of doing it completely by yourself and figuring it out, and not a lot of help,” Henze said.

Because not all of the appropriated money is actually reimbursed, Erdal and Grodsky feel that more could safely be appropriated than they were allowed to in this year’s budget.

“We could appropriate a whole lot more money than what we technically appropriate now, especially considering that we do have a massive, massive surplus that was built up through COVID,” Erdal said. 

Allocating student fees

Of the $24.50 each undergraduate student pays in student organization activity fees, a certain amount is reserved for groups like the Carolina Union Activities Board, WXYC and UNC Student Television. 

The rest is for registered student organizations. Whatever money the Undergraduate Senate is approved to spend is appropriated at finance nights in which organizations’ treasurers and other officers present their requests to the Undergraduate Senate Finance Committee. The group examines and approves the expenses that they see as having the highest impact on campus. 

Each organization gets 10 minutes on a video call, and the most recent finance night, on Feb. 9, lasted from 7:30 p.m. until nearly midnight. 

Due to pandemic-related low activity, nearly a million dollars in unallocated funds were carried over to this year. Of the half a million dollars brought annually from student fees, only $349,401 was spent during the 2021-22 school year. There may be another surplus this year, which Grodsky and Erdal are unhappy about.

“It's our responsibility to spend the money that we're collecting from the student body," Grodsky said. "This is the core of our delegated authority from the University."

As of Feb. 8, only 19.76 percent of funds appropriated to organizations had been reimbursed according to Grodsky’s figures. He expects that figure to rise as reimbursement requests come in toward the end of the year, potentially exceeding last year’s total of 37.53 percent. But, he said he still thinks that more money could be appropriated.

Grodsky said he pushed for a budget that would spend down the surplus, but administrators told him that the Carolina Union Business Office could not process more transactions. He also suggested using some of the funds to hire a new employee but was unsuccessful. 

“Not all of it is on the University, but a lot of this is that we need administrative support here to actually get this money out,” Grodsky said.

Reality of appropriations 

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For the primary budgeting cycle of the spring semester, organizations’ requests total to $1.2 million, but the Undergraduate Finance Committee can only appropriate $425,000. This has presented challenges for organizations’ finances.

The Kamikazi Dance Team requested $3,590 for the semester at the Jan. 26 finance night and was appropriated $1,450, not including any money for travel. Now, the team has to fundraise to get to a dance showcase in Virginia.

“There's a big stressor this semester on raising money,” Henze said.

The UNC-CH Pakistan Society requested $6,910 this semester, and the Finance Committee appropriated $4,070 for them. 

“They're very nice if you explain how much of an impact you have on everyone,” Areeba Khokhar, the society’s treasurer, said.

Still, getting less than 60 percent of her request fulfilled meant that Khokhar and her organization had to rethink their financial plans — specifically around donating ticket sales from an upcoming event to flood relief in Pakistan.

@SatchelWalton

university@dailytarheel.com