Costs of college's mansion detailed

Audit finds fixes to home of Towson U. president totaled about $1 million

Renovation budget was $250,000

July 20, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

The kitchen remodeling that was supposed to cost $10,000 came in at more than $70,000. Carpentry that was budgeted at $10,000 ended up costing nearly $40,000, and interior painting slated to cost $30,000 wound up more than double that.

In an audit released yesterday, the University System of Maryland provided the most detailed look yet at Towson University's spending on its $850,000 presidential mansion - spending that drove its former president from office in April.

The audit found that renovations to the mansion that were supposed to cost no more than $250,000 totaled $978,345 - all paid out of the university's budget. If one adds $27,812 in costs that Towson officials argue should not be considered renovations, such as roof maintenance and outdoor stair repairs, the total cost of the upgrade comes to more than $1 million.

In addition, the audit found, Towson purchased $79,000 in furniture for the mansion, paid for by the university's fund-raising foundation. The expenses included $4,055 for two knick-knack shelves, $9,149 for 10 dining room side chairs, $5,828 for two lounge chairs for the music room, a $3,018 sideboard and a $7,878 sofa.

The audit singles out for responsibility Mark L. Perkins, who was forced to resign as Towson president in April, just nine months after he arrived on the campus. It was Perkins, the report states, who approved large increases in the renovation budget as costs ballooned far beyond initial estimates.

"No formal structure appeared to be in place that would have facilitated a defined scope of work and accurate budget estimate," the report states. "Consequently, the scope of work and budget appears to have been regarded as fluid."

Expenses not monitored

Moreover, the report charges, by failing to inform the university system office of the budget increases, Perkins and Towson officials violated a requirement that all capital improvement projects over $250,000 be approved by the system's vice chancellor for administration and finance, Joseph F. Vivona.

"There was no critical monitoring of project costs," the report concludes.

Perkins, who is living in a Federal Hill condominium and who received a severance package worth almost $400,000 last month, could not be reached for comment yesterday. But in his resignation letter April 5, he said the cost of renovations spiraled out of control when Towson officials discovered flaws in the house that had not been known about at the time of the purchase last July.

"I was troubled by the additional work, but we really had no choice at that point. The property had been purchased and renovations had to be completed," he said in his letter.

Towson officials said yesterday that they are revising their spending practices to make sure they are in compliance with university system policies.

In their defense, they said they had not subjected the work to strict budget oversight because it did not, in their view, fit the system's definition of a capital project. And at the time the project began, they argued, system rules stated that reporting costs between $250,000 and $1 million to Vivona was optional, not mandatory.

The 1926 mansion, in Baltimore's Guilford neighborhood, remains vacant, with interim President Dan Jones having chosen not to move in. Towson officials said there are no plans to sell the house, which might be used for university parties in the fall and which will be available for the next president, who is to be named by January.

"We check on it every day," said Towson spokeswoman Susanna Craine.

The system's Board of Regents approved the $850,000 purchase of the house last summer after Towson officials said the residence, five miles from the Towson campus, was in "excellent condition" and would need little work. Perkins has said the house was picked out by other Towson officials, but regent sources have said he was heavily involved in the selection.

Loss of faith

In March, the Sun reported that Towson had spent, by its own count, about $600,000 upgrading the house - including expenses of $25,000 for a plasma-screen television and $80,000 for an elevator. Towson officials said the spending was needed to prepare the house for events attended by potential donors.

The newspaper report prompted university system officials to investigate the spending. Vivona's initial inquiry of Towson officials confirmed the $600,000 tally, but after regents voted March 14 to conduct a full audit, Perkins requested a meeting with Vivona and told him that the costs had run to more than $800,000.

At the time of Perkins' resignation, several regents pointed to this sudden change in Towson's estimate of the renovation cost as a reason why they had lost faith in Perkins. They also said they were troubled by the fact that he had never mentioned to them his need for a handicapped-access bedroom for an elderly relative, which Perkins later said was the reason he installed an elevator.

The audit report suggests that the overruns were a product partly of the house's unsuitability for its intended use, as Perkins implied in his resignation letter. A heating and air conditioning overhaul cost $59,289 because the existing units on the first floor didn't work; interior painting cost $62,300 because plaster needed repairing after wall coverings were removed; and it cost $6,750 to widen the driveway to make room for catering vehicles.

Fancy touches

At the same time, the audit indicates that overruns were also the result of Perkins' apparent demand for deluxe features. Bathroom renovations cost nearly $50,000 - in part, Towson sources say, because Perkins twice asked that the tiles be redone, voicing objections to the colors. The carpeting, including Persian rugs, cost $73,663.

Regents and system officials declined to comment on the audit yesterday, saying that the report spoke for itself. "It's pretty clear," said system spokesman Chris Hart. "It says it all."

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