ISU watching finances, not ‘pulling fire alarm’

NORMAL — Illinois State University is keeping a close eye on finances while waiting to see what lawmakers and the governor do about a state budget.

During a budget review at Friday’s quarterly board meeting, chairman Rocky Donahue asked, “When do we as a board have to think about pulling the fire alarm?”

Greg Alt, vice president for finance and planning, said something needs to be done after Jan. 1, but “we’re not the first canary in the coal mine.”

Board member J.D. Bergman, who also serves on the Illinois Board of Higher Education, said about seven universities would be “out of business” before ISU has “real serious problems,” unless those universities get state appropriations and ISU doesn’t.

A major factor that helped ISU was a strong incoming freshman class that helped boost enrollment to a 27-year high while enrollments dropped — in some cases significantly — at most state universities.

The increased tuition revenue helped fill the gap left by the lack of state money.

The legislature passed two stopgap spending measures this year. One in April gave ISU $20.9 million, about 29 percent of what it received for fiscal year 2015. The measure in June gave ISU $38.3 million, about 53 percent of what it received for FY 2015.

The money approved in June could be used for FY 2016 expenses, but it is considered FY 2017 revenue.

“We’re grateful for what the legislature did with the stopgap … but it’s really vastly short,” said Donahue.

Alt said reduced spending and $31 million in reserve funds were used to close the revenue gap in the last fiscal year. The university still has about $32 million in unrestricted reserves, according to Alt.

Earlier in the meeting, President Larry Dietz read a portion of a letter from university presidents to the governor and legislature that “strongly recommends” full funding retroactive to FY 2016 and for FY 2017. The letter said such funding is essential to maintain quality and keep universities accessible and affordable for students and families.

Dietz used the oft-repeated phrase “strong and stable” to describe ISU’s condition, noting that solid enrollment, low debt and watchful spending “continue to see us through.”

Alt said the university will hold back on spending through such actions as not automatically filling positions that become vacant.

“If we have to take more serious action, we’ll know more in the spring,” said Alt.

The board approved a request for $79.5 million in state appropriations for FY 2018, which would be a $7.3 million increase over what was appropriated to ISU in FY 2015 — the last full-year appropriation.

But Donahue said, “I would caution anybody against getting their hopes up” for an appropriation of that amount.

An FY 2018 capital request of $289.5 million also was approved, but ISU has listed the same priorities for several years and there is no state capital projects program on the horizon.

An interior painting project for Watterson Towers and repairs to the North University Street parking garage, costing $660,000 and $675,000, respectively, were approved by the board.

Money for those projects comes from restricted funds and cannot be used for other purposes.

The painting project in Watterson’s north tower will complete a seven-year cycle of painting one residence hall each year, Alt explained.

ISU watching finances, not ‘pulling fire alarm’

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