College house draws anger

Lawmakers say Towson's spending may lead to oversight

Officials defend actions

March 08, 2002|By Alec MacGillis and Sarah Koenig | Alec MacGillis and Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Lawmakers weighing whether to cut the proposed budget for the state university system expressed outrage yesterday over Towson University's spending $1.45 million on the purchase and upgrading of its new president's house.

Towson should have been more prudent in buying and renovating the mansion for its new president, Mark L. Perkins, legislators said, especially when the state is facing budget cuts and rising tuition.

"It's not the dollars so much as ... the level of arrogance, or maybe it's ineptness," said Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat and chairwoman of the Budget and Taxation Committee. "They were incautious with other people's money."

Most lawmakers said their anger about the house likely won't influence their decisions about the university system's budget, but would result in closer oversight. "We do provide housing throughout the state for the university presidents, but we have to make sure the houses aren't palaces either," said Del. Frank S. Turner, a Howard Democrat and vice chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee for education.

But Comptroller William Donald Schaefer predicted that the spending would affect budget decisions. "I was very disturbed," said Schaefer, who sits on the Board of Public Works, which approved the purchase.

The reactions in Annapolis occurred as the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee adopted an earlier recommendation to slash Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposed $31 million increase for the university system. The cut, which could be revised, would leave the system with a $68 million hole in next year's budget because of automatic increases in salaries and other costs.

Legislators were responding to an article in yesterday's Sun about Towson's new presidential residence in the North Baltimore neighborhood of Guilford, five miles from campus. Towson bought the house last summer for $850,000, telling the Board of Regents that it was in excellent shape and would not need much work.

This week, Towson officials acknowledged that they've spent almost $600,000 to renovate the house, most of it from its operating budget. Some of the spending has been to correct flaws that officials say they did not know about when they purchased the house, including damaged floors and a poor air conditioning system. Other expenses included a $25,000 entertainment system, $30,000 rugs and an elevator.

Towson officials said they did not recall the university hiring an outside inspector to do a comprehensive check of the house, but that it left that to Towson's facilities department. "From what I understand, this house was looked at over and over. There were tons and tons of people going through the house," said David Harnage, Towson's new vice president for administration and finance.

He said the university did hire an outside inspector to examine the house for termite damage before the sale. The inspector found old termite damage but no active infestation, Harnage said.

Perkins and university system leaders defended the spending yesterday, saying the property was the first step in Towson's push to boost its profile and endowment, by providing a venue to entertain supporters. "People don't give you money because you need it. You need to go out and inspire friends to give you money, but first you need to make friends," said system Chancellor Donald N. Langenberg, in a meeting yesterday with the Sun editorial board and three system presidents, including Perkins. "This is not a perk for Mark."

Added Perkins, "This is not about the house. It's about an opportunity for the state to step up and do something for this institution." Perkins, hired from the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay last spring, noted the house was bought in the summer, before the economy had gone sharply down. If he'd known that the state would soon be in budget straits, he said, he may have thought differently about coming to Towson.

Langenberg said he is not concerned that the uproar over the house would hurt the university system's prospects with the General Assembly. "I take the long view, not the short view, not the view of how things look in Annapolis on any given day," he said.

At the same time, he and the system's presidents are very concerned about the lawmakers' move to slash the governor's proposed increase for the system. The shortfall that would be created by the potential cut could force layoffs and additional tuition increases, they said. As it is, the system expects to raise in-state tuition next year by as much as 5.5 percent, its largest increase in five years.

"We might not be able to offer all the course sections students need to graduate on time; to offer quality advising, to fill positions," said Perkins. "It doesn't help us in terms of our affordability."

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.