USC pennants in atrium

USC pennants in the atrium, June 24 2019.

With Ontario’s optional fee directive frozen in a court battle, the USC is asking Western to approve a fee bill that is almost all mandatory, a potential return to budget security for the government after a long year of uncertainty.

For decades, student governments have collected compulsory fees on top of tuition from students to fund services like the University Students’ Council’s bus pass and its clubs system. But a directive last year from the provincial government split student governments’ fee bills into mandatory and optional portions.

Now, the directive, which the government calls the Student Choice Initiative, is paralyzed in the courts between a successful suit against SCI and an ongoing appeal by the government to keep it intact.

The USC budget passed by council Wednesday night argues that, due to the ruling against the directive, the province’s mandate no longer stands and they are again able to levy mostly mandatory fees.

“For the time being, however, [SCI] is not in place, and as such it is within our mandate to levy optional fees,” wrote Declan Hodgins, USC secretary-treasurer, who authored the document and presented it to council.

The set of ancillary fees for USC services, which this year totals $976.93, will sit before Western University’s Board of Governors, which has final say. Last year, fees were $939.88.

If given the go-ahead, the USC could notch its second surprise victory in fighting with SCI, which the USC has called its greatest ever threat. Over the summer, students paid more in optional fees than many anticipated; and now, the gap left by SCI’s disappearance might be enough for the USC to rebuild its budget — if Western takes the risk.

The USC executive, led by Hodgins, got council’s approval for the 50-page financial write-up at its annual mid-February budget meeting.

It includes the budgets controlled by each of the government's six executives, the bill of  ancillary fees it collects to fund itself and a long narrative outlining all the USC’s reasoning. The fee bill totals a similar figure to last year, with minor changes to many items.

In the narrative, the USC goes beyond arguing it can justify collecting the fees while SCI is in limbo. Instead, the USC makes a much stronger claim: that mandatory fees are in the USC’s power to collect as a democratic body, while Ontario’s mandate strips that power away.

“It is our belief, that as a democratic body representing students at Western, it is within our authority to levy compulsory ancillary fees,” Hodgins writes.

If Western does not accept the USC’s ask, or if the ongoing court appeal over SCI favours Queen’s Park, the USC has a built a contingency plan into their new budget.

The budget allocates $328,197.98 of expected profit from businesses like The Spoke to replace any revenue lost from opt-outs. If the fees remain mandatory, the document says the USC will redirect the extra $300,000 to the USC’s reserves.

“While this option may result in slightly more expensive fees this year, the political uncertainty that currently exists makes this decision sound for both the organization’s future health and for our sustainability,” Hodgins told council.

The USC isn’t padding any fee prices to meet their contingency target; but the business profits it is setting aside could have been used to subsidize some services, lowering fees.

Operational profits will subsidize parts of seven different ancillary fees, totalling $18.50 per student, and $51.19 if the student is paying the now-subsidized OWeek fee. The money is allocated to services like health and wellness, and government advocacy.

The USC has subsidized fees before, but this is the first year they’ve accounted for it in the budget.

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