Cars, country clubs among leaders’ perks

A dearth of state tax revenue is prompting budget cuts at Florida public universities, but some of the money trickling out of USF’s thinning coffers pays several administrators up to $650 per month for a car allowance.

The University’s fundraising arm, the USF Foundation, also pays for a handful of administrators’ auto allowances, as well as several memberships to four area country clubs, including upscale locales like the Tampa Bay Yacht & Country Club and the Tampa Palms Golf & Country Club. That’s a total of $9,470 in membership fees from April to September, according to public records obtained by the Oracle.

USF Athletics also pays for several coaches’ rides — $450 per month each for football coach Jim Leavitt and women’s basketball coach Jose Fernandez, for example — but the source of that money is unclear. That’s because the University did not fulfill part of a public records request filed by the Oracle on Oct. 28 asking for the money’s origin.

These auto allowances — totaling $14,825 per month — and country club memberships are granted at a time when the University stands to take another cut to its budget — lowering it by 5 percent, or about $17 million, this spring. And they’ve incensed staff and faculty leaders who see the benefits as inappropriate in light of budget cut-prompted layoffs and hiring freezes — though they recognize that much of the money for cars and memberships doesn’t come from slashed funds.

“Administrators getting bonuses and special perks at a time where employees have not gotten an across-the-board raise is wrong,” said William McClelland, USF staff union president.

USF maintains, however, that the car allowances are justified because the recipients often travel by car to fundraise or recruit students.

The USF Foundation — a private organization funded by donations — said country club memberships foster fundraising, though there are no metrics in place to determine whether said memberships achieve this goal.

“The argument has to be that there are areas of the University where you have to spend money to make money,” said USF spokesman Michael Hoad.

So who’s getting car allowances from USF?  Five out of 15 non-DSO auto allowances — the ones that aren’t funded by the USF Foundation — come from a mixed bag of bills. Jennifer Meningall, vice president of Student Affairs, and Karen A. White, USF St. Petersburg vice president of Academic Affairs, get $650 per month from state funds. Kathleen A. Betancourt, associate vice president of government relations, gets $550 monthly and Medical School Dean Stephen K. Klasko gets $650, though it’s funneled through different University accounts. Arthur M. Guilford, vice president and CEO of USF Sarasota-Manatee, gets $650, too, from what are essentially leftover funds.

The source of Athletics-provided car allowances remains unclear, however. What is clear is that, in addition to Leavitt and Lopez, other high-profile coaches get car allowances, including men’s soccer coach George Kiefer and softball coach Kenneth Eriksen, who each receive $450 monthly.

Jay Wilson, USF Foundation director of communications, said decisions about Foundation-funded cars are part of the hiring process and allowances are granted based upon a staffer’s need to travel.

“If the job is going to require a certain amount of travel for success, that’s seen as the underlying principle behind auto allowances,” he said.

Hoad’s description of non-Foundation-funded car allowances echoes Wilson’s, saying an employee’s legitimate need to travel is the determining factor in awarding a car allowance. Hoad also said the University is phasing out allowances.

“The general trend is to reduce those kind of allowances over time,” he said.

Country club dues range from a $53 payment to Hunter’s Green for Provost Ralph Wilcox to a $5,400 lump payment for USF Polytechnic President Marshall Goodman’s Grassland Golf and Country Club membership. Among other administrators, USF President Judy Genshaft has a membership at Tampa Palms and Guilford has one at the Tampa Bay Yacht & Country Club.

University of Florida spokeswoman Janine Sikes said its president gets a car allowance, but is “not aware of” him or other administrators receiving country club memberships. A Florida State University spokeswoman said its president gets to use a university car and has a membership at an on-campus golf club.

Country club memberships are used for anything from executive luncheons to hosting meetings with volunteers and staff, Wilson said. Though there’s no way to measure the fundraising-ability of these memberships, Wilson said he doesn’t think that’s a problem.

“I don’t think you can really measure that,” he said. “If there’s a luncheon of a country club that’s part of the cultivation process, it’s part of the bigger picture. It’s hard to make a one-to-one correlation.”

Sherman Dorn, president of USF’s faculty union, disagrees.

He agreed that car allowances and country club memberships could be legitimate “when it’s part of your job to work with community members,” but pointed out how the University’s budget taskforce evaluated departments — and demanded assessment — amid financial crisis.

Dorn said the lack of metrics at the Foundation is a “double standard.”

“The question is, do students want money going to golf course memberships and greens fees or do they want it going for faculty and scholarships,” he said. “It is inconsistent to hold departments accountable based on quantitative measures of grant writing success, and then suspend accountability when you’re talking about country club memberships.”

Timing remains an issue for McClelland.

“To have people getting perks at a time like this is not the right message to send to the staff.”