MURRAY — In approving the 2019-20 fiscal year budget Friday, the Murray State University Board of Regents were doing so with one large issue unresolved.
The $152 million-plus budget did not include adjustments for what will be a $4 million expense in the form of an 84 percent required payment for Murray State being part of the Kentucky Employees Retirement Systems pension program if the Kentucky General Assembly does not act by July 1. That obligation is up from 49 percent.
Currently, lawmakers are in discussions about the matter and Gov. Matt Bevin is asking for a special session to convene before that deadline. As of yet, though, no action has been taken.
With this in mind, the Regents took action to prepare, unanimously passing a contingency plan to pull $4 million out of a contingency fund the university has in reserves so it would be ready in case lawmakers do not act.
“It’s unsustainable,” Murray State President Dr. Bob Jackson said of the planned hike to 84 percent. “And from what I’ve been told, that actually could be a low number in years to come. This motion is for, one year, one time, to pull (the $4 million) from reserves to make the payment, and over the course of the next 10 years, we make payments back to those reserves. Also, we begin trying to figure out how we get ourselves out of that system.
“We must respond as quickly as we can to reduce our exposure.”
This comes as the university experienced a better-than-expected ending to the current fiscal year. Earlier in the year, Vice President of Finance and Administrative Services Jackie Dudley was saying she expected the university to end with a $4 million shortfall. The shortfall ultimately ended up being half that amount. The budget was helped by unexpectedly strong enrollment numbers in the just-completed spring semester, along with a few other factors, Dudley said.
“We were able to put a raise in place as part of the third phase of our ($10.10 Plan), where our lowest paid employees and staff will see up to 9 percent in raises. We were able to put $1 million in for deferred maintenance and we kept tuition under what we could have raised – 1 percent for undergraduate students and zero for graduate students,” Jackson said.
“Part of our job, though, that we wish we didn’t have is having to cut $3.8 million in expenses, partly because of our ongoing pension issues, partly from appropriations decreases. Are there challenges facing us? Yes. Some seem overwhelming some days.”
Something that could significantly help Murray State’s finances is increased enrollment, and it appears, at least at this point, that the fruits of a strategy to create that are a few months away from being harvested. Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Don Robertson reported to the Regents that significant increases in various enrollment categories are expected for the fall 2019 semester.
However, it is the number of new students already seeking housing that seems to show the effort is paying dividends. So far, 1,121 students are involved in seeking housing accommodations for fall ’19, compared to 1,038 this time last year, an increase of 8 percent.
Other numbers Robertson said are encouraging include the number of students attending Summer Orientation sessions. Where 1,264 were registered for those campus sessions heading into fall 2018, already 1,401 students have registered for the current period. Director of Institutional Effectiveness and Strategic Planning Dr. Renee Fister told the Regents that Summer O is a strong indicator of whether or not students will attend Murray State, with history showing that between 95-98 percent of the students that attend Summer O become enrollees.
This year’s Summer O registrations are up nearly 11 percent, she said.
Friday also was an emotional day as the Regents said farewell to three members. This included Student Regent J.T. Payne and Faculty Regent Katherine Farmer. However, by far the strongest emotion was reserved for Chair Susan Guess, who is leaving after nine years.
She shed tears as she addressed the board following a video highlighting Murray State’s athletics achievements this past year, including seven Ohio Valley Conference titles and Murray State winning the conference’s Commissioner’s Cup for overall excellence.
“I planned on not getting emotional today, but that video got to me because it really speaks to the good of this university,” Guess said, remembering how times this past year were not always smooth between herself and fellow Regents. “We have found ourselves on opposing sides with some issues this year, but we brought together varied opinions for the difficult decisions we had to make this year. No, we may not have agreed on how we came to the outcomes, but I know we agreed for the reason of our debates, and that was that we each felt that we were doing what was best for our university.
“By challenging one another, it has generally brought us the best results. Every person on this board has taught me something and helped me grow.”