Wright State: University can overcome $6M in surprise costs

Wright State University is facing a new hurdle in its attempt to stick to its budget for the first time since 2011, but school leaders believe they can still reach their targets.

Members of the school’s board of trustees were told Friday that WSU has gone $6 million over budget on employee health benefits this fiscal year. It marks at least the third time in the last year that an unexpected cost has popped up or that a source of revenue didn’t pan out.

“The medical insurance was a big wild card that got thrown in…I’m still confident we’ll meet our target at this point,” said Walt Branson, Wright State’s chief business officer.

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Wright State trustees slashed more than $30.8 million from the college’s budget last June in an attempt to begin correcting years of overspending. The board also set a goal of adding $6 million to the university’s reserve fund by the close of the 2018 fiscal year on June 30.

Though WSU may still meet its budget, the benefits budget overrun leaves less room for error, both Branson and board finance committee chairman Sean Fitzpatrick said. If it were not for the unexpected benefits costs, WSU may have been able to add close to $12 million to reserves this year instead of just hitting its goal of $6 million, Branson said.

The school went over budget on health benefits because there were more large health insurance claims this year than usual, administrators said. Both Branson and Fitzpatrick said the large claims may be from people who had major medical problems this year or are about to retire or leave the university.

“As people transition out of the university, they lose their medical insurance,” Fitzpatrick said. “They need to have something done, so they have it done.”

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The unexpected benefits costs are just the latest roadblock Wright State has faced in trying to stay within its budget.

Earlier this year, WSU administrators said they would need to carve out millions more from its 2018 fiscal year budget because of a nearly $6 million decrease in tuition and fee revenue and unexpected scholarship and fellowship costs of more than $1.5 million.

While they’re unwelcome surprises given Wright State’s financial problems, they are not catastrophic ones. Unexpected costs are in some ways, actually anticipated, both Branson and Fitzpatrick said.

To make up the losses, the WSU administration has largely relied on letting empty jobs go unfilled. So far, Wright State has left around 200 positions vacant, which has saved the school almost $5 million to date, according to a budget report.

Despite going over the benefits budget by $6 million, the university’s longer-term financial health is thought to have improved.

Last month, WSU leaders said the school is on track to avoid fiscal watch. But, because of low reserves and little room for error, Wright State’s financial position remains tenuous.

RELATED: Wright State settled for nearly $2 million with feds over student aid issues

With just four months left to go in the fiscal year, the ability to stay on budget will be largely based on how well university leaders can track data and spending, which board chairman Doug Fecher said has come a long way in the last year or so. The university’s ability to now catch budget issues before they balloon serves as a major step forward, he said.

“We’re not where we need to be financially. That’s for sure,” Fecher said. “We’re not where we need to be, but it is a completely stronger position than we were in last year, even though we don’t have the reserves we need and we’re not out of the woods.”

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