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Referendum approaching to confirm $10 million loan for new Student Union Building

The decision has already been made to construct a new Student Union Building that will bring all student amenities together under one roof; the matter currently at hand is determining how long students are willing to wait to see it materialize. Students had collectively decided in winter of 2008 during the Student Membership Referendum that they agreed to pay an extra $35 fee every semester to be allocated into a fund that would raise money to build a new Student Union Building. The building would contain all student service-related offices and would help solve the space crunch the university was, and is, facing.

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By Tanya Ruscheinski (Contributor) – Email

Print Edition: November 23, 2011

From December 5th through 9th the Student Union Society will be holding a referendum where members will vote on whether they approve the proposed $10 million loan in order to finalize the finances of the building and move on to the next phase.

The decision has already been made to construct a new Student Union Building that will bring all student amenities together under one roof; the matter currently at hand is determining how long students are willing to wait to see it materialize.

Students had collectively decided in winter of 2008 during the Student Membership Referendum that they agreed to pay an extra $35 fee every semester to be allocated into a fund that would raise money to build a new Student Union Building. The building would contain all student service-related offices and would help solve the space crunch the university was, and is, facing.

Initially, the $15-million proposed project was to be split evenly between the B.C. government, UFV and the SUS. The prospect of a loan became an issue when the provincial government backed out on their $5 million contribution as the financial reality of the past few years became apparent.

SUS Communications Administrator Jhim Burwell explained how the BC Government did two things when they withdrew their funding. “They pulled out on their promise, essentially, to put that $5 million in,” said Burwell, “but they also put a restriction on the university’s ability to borrow money.”

With the university unable to take out the size of loan necessary to complete the project, the SUS was the only group left who was able to cover for the financial loss through a loan.

As it stands, the now $17.1 million building is broken down into the $10 million loan, the roughly $2.1 million from collected student fees, and the remaining $5 million from UFV.

According to Carlos Vidal, SUS president, the new Student Union Building is meant to be “a one-stop shop for all student services.” This includes Student Life facilities, the Student Union Society, CIVL Radio, The Cascade, the Career Centre, and an expanded, fully-functioning AfterMath. It will also contain ample meeting space for clubs and associations and a large multi-purpose room for all types of events. It will sit next to the Envision centre, and if all goes as planned, the goal is to have the building open by September 2013.

In order to validate the upcoming referendum, five percent of the SUS membership must vote (that works out to about 500 students), and half of this group plus one must vote “yes” in order to confirm the loan. If this happens, the SUS will be able to finalize the mortgage and move on to the next step of construction. In the event that the referendum does not go through, the SUS says they plan to hold a second referendum at a later date. If it is refuted again, however, then the only option left is to wait for the money to be raised through the regular student contributions.

“We would really like to see this building happen faster than if we had to wait for the money to accrue to $10 million, which would take about roughly eight to 10 years,” said Vidal. “We just feel like these students have been paying into this fund for a couple years already and they would like to see… it become a reality.”

One of the key concerns that students have had regarding the mortgage is if it would result in fee increases. Burwell assured students that there would be no need for them to pay any more money than they had already agreed to.

“The way that it is going to work presently under the current understanding,” said Burwell, “is that the amount of sub-funding coming in will cover both the mortgage payments and the majority of the operations, if not all the operations.”

So students do not need to worry about having to pull more money out of their pockets; “We’re not looking to overextend ourselves by building a building that we can’t afford,” said Burwell.

However, according to Shane Potter, a fourth-year English student and student representative on the Senate, the Senate Governance Committee and the Undergraduate Education Committee, the project is asking for too much.

“I’m a little concerned about them spending $17 million on this huge [project] that essentially costs too much for what they’re building and what they need,” he said.

His issue is not with the building itself, but rather with how the SUS chose to act on the need for more space by planning to construct a building that “looks like an art piece.”

“They wanted to have all of their services together so that they are all in one place for convenience, and I think that’s what [we] should be doing,” said Potter. “Where they went from that to saying we need this elaborate, glass, $17 million building with all this fancy stuff… is the jump that I’m having a hard time making.”

To put it in perspective, Potter noted that if you break down the 4700 square-metre building plan, the cost per square metre ends up coming out to around $3600. “It’s a huge cost and it’s a very expensive building and I just don’t understand it,” he said.

Rather than spending years paying off a mortgage through student fee contributions, Potter suggested that the SUS simplify their building plans and satisfy their needs, not their wants.

“Put up some walls, put up a roof, get some more square feet, and make a simple building,” said Potter. “You can spend the money we already have and build something simple, not this extravagant project.”

He has launched a “No” campaign against the mortgage referendum and seeks to find out if other students agree with him. His goal is to provide students with information that represents an effective argument against the mortgage and that essentially is “an alternate voice” for students who perhaps support his view but thought they were the only ones.

“It just does not seem like [the SUS] is being smart with our money,” concluded Potter. “I think going into debt for this building, even for ten years, is a huge mistake.”

No matter how you look at the issue, however, Burwell wants to stress the importance of making a well-informed decision.

“The most important thing from my perspective…is that we want as many people to know about this as possible. Whether they want to vote or not is up to them, but we want the decision on the way that they vote to be made according to real information.”

Currently, the SUS website has a section devoted to the Student Union Building with information on all of the statistics and frequently asked questions. There are also going to be two formal Q&A sessions the week before the referendum, one each in Abbotsford and Chilliwack, which students are encouraged to check out and participate in.

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