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October 21. 2013 6:42PM

NH House GOP Leader questions use of state funds for UNH stadium lights, seating upgrade

CONCORD -- New Hampshire House Republican Leader Gene Chandler on Monday questioned the University of New Hampshire’s decision to announce and move forward with a plan to spend $1.5 million in state funding on lights and seating improvements for Cowell Stadium without the formal approval of the university system’s board of trustees.

“The university system continues to have credibility issues with some of us here in Concord because of a continued pattern of misallocation of state taxpayer dollars,” Chandler said in a statement. “Having lights at the football stadium is not conducive to providing high quality, affordable higher education to New Hampshire students.”

Chandler, of Bartlett, pointed out that early in the 2013 legislative session, the university system presented a plan to Gov. Maggie Hassan for $180 million in capital improvements over the next six years. He said the improvements were mostly for academic and other student facilities.

According to a Legislative Budget Assistant’s Office report, the House version of the fiscal 2014-2015 capital budget appropriated $7.5 million to the university system. The state Senate capital budget appropriated $8 million, but, unlike the House version, specified that $1.5 million of it would be used specifically for “upgrades to Cowell Stadium.” Another $500,000 was earmarked for a veterinary laboratory.

When House and Senate negotiators met in committee of conference, Chandler pointed out, citing the LBA  report, the specific appropriation for Cowell Stadium and the vet lab were removed, and, according to Chandler, $8 million was to be spent “at the discretion of the Board of Trustees.”

“Implied was that they would use the money for projects that may more positively affect academics and student life at New Hampshire’s public universities,” said Chandler in his statement.

Chandler said he began inquiring about the use of the money after UNH issued a press release on Sept. 13 announcing that Cowell Stadium would have a $1.5 million renovation for the 2014 football stadium using capital budget funds.

The release quoted UNH Athletic Director Marty Scarano as saying, “The lights will allow us to extend the use of the stadium to better allow us to serve the state and its constituency.  For example, we hope to soon host many of the NHIAA outdoor championships to include the three football championships.”

An email to Chandler from university system treasurer Erik Goss, released by Chandler, said, “The USNH Board of Trustees has not approved the full allocation” of the $8 million appropriation, but, “We can report that $1.5 million will be allocated to the UNH Cowell Stadium lights project and $500,000 to the UNH Vet Lab relocation project, as proposed by Senators (Lou) D’Allesandro (D-Manchester) and (James) Rausch (R-Derry).”

Chandler said he then asked system Chancellor Todd Leach to explain why the university announced it would spend $1.5 million on stadium lights when the trustees had yet to approve it.

He also wrote, “Given the long list of priorities in the capital appropriation request, especially those dealing with maintenance and upgrade of academic and other facilities integral to the quality of the education experience students receive at our public universities, we were quite surprised when UNH announced that the first thing they would do with these dollars is install lights and seating upgrades at the football stadium.”

Leach replied that the university system administrative board, comprising the system’s presidents, recommended using $1.5 million for the stadium project, and, he wrote, the trustees’ Financial Affairs Committee will consider the proposal at its October meeting, which is Thursday, Oct. 24.

Leach wrote to Chandler that while the stadium upgrades and the veterinary lab were not part of the final capital budget appropriation for the university system, “they were reviewed and considered by both UNH and the Admin. Board, alongside other project possibilities, given the context of the appropriation amount received.

“UNH has identified significant value and impact associated with moving these projects forward and I anticipate that the Financial Affairs Committee will approve the Admin. Board recommendations,” Leach wrote.

Leach wrote that if the Financial Affairs Committee does not approve the recommendations, “then UNH will need to identify alternative funding sources to proceed.”

But, he wrote, “I know UNH felt confident enough in their decision to move this project forward, even if other sources of funds were needed, that they were comfortable announcing the project.”

Chandler said, “The decision to prioritize this project ahead of $180 million of other requests USNH presented to the governor and legislature earlier this year was surprising. The decision to use the state’s capital budget appropriation to fund this project was surprising. And the decision to announce the project was moving forward more than a month before the Board of Trustees would meet to discuss or approve it was deeply concerning.

“While it’s up to the Board of Trustees to do what they will with the taxpayer dollars they receive, they should, at the very least, consider better ways to apply these dollars to more positively affect students’ educational experiences,” Chandler said. “I hope at their meeting this week the board will discuss a more appropriate use for this money or identify an alternative funding source. They may also want to review their communications policy to avoid announcing things prematurely, and to strive towards more accuracy.”

Hassan spokesman, Marc Goldberg, said, “As Chancellor Leach communicated to Representative Chandler, the recommendations must still be approved by the USNH Board of Trustees, and we expect the Board to thoroughly and carefully review these recommendations.” Hassan is an ex-officio member of the board.

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