Leaving WUSA better than I found it 

Seneca Velling
Seneca Velling
VP Operations & Finance
Fri, 05/15/2020 - 11:00

"Outgoing Executives shall normally be retained for a period of at least two (2) weeks of the succeeding fiscal year as casual part-time employees...” (Board Procedure 12), and retained I have been.  

As the outgoing VP Operations and Finance (VPOF), I am responsible for passing the torch on an expansive portfolio spanning from budget development, financial controls, and administered programs (e.g. UPass and the Health Plan) to Human Resource management, business and facilities administration (e.g. CnDs and the SLC), and Secretarial duties. 

Naturally, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept Canada, major economic and fiscal questions roiled governments, corporations, and people. The Federation of Students (operating as the Waterloo Undergraduate Student Association (WUSA) and its societies) was no exception. Suffice it to say, ending on COVID-19 was not the anticipated plan for our executive team, so while we readied for the transition of our successors – Abbie, Alana, Megan, and Nada – my final month of office centered around an expected 25% revenue contraction with an initial budget projection of $1.3M in deficit before making any expense and service-level adjustments, exploring workforce planning for WUSA and Societies staff, negotiating removal of fees from the fee statement with UW senior administration, and administering the abrupt closure of all student-run businesses and operations across campus.  

Over three Board of Directors meetings, multiple committee meetings, and the April regular Students’ Council meeting, I am left confident that we are well placed to overcome the financial effects and downstream consequences of this pandemic. With that said, these projects are far from over and stewarding the transition of these major items for my successor and senior management is of key importance; and so in concluding transition, I look forward to leaving WUSA better than I found it.  

Where WUSA came from (the Feds’ days) 

To understand how we got here, it's important to reflect on where we have come from: a year ago, the Federation of Students (Feds) was struggling with brand recognition, student buy-in for WUSA’s leadership, juggling a significant deficit posed by the Bombershelter Pub’s previous operations and staff salary growth outstripping inflation, and anxiously awaiting the impacts of opt-out fees brought on by the January announcement of the Student Choice Initiative (SCI). Since then, this year has provided no shortage of challenges: the student housing crisis in the fall, the first ever GRT strike in January, and now responding to the coronavirus.  

So, in overcoming these challenges and between, you might be asking, what did your VPOF get done this year? I’m proud to report, a lot! It’s been a busy year, but an incredibly productive one (mostly thanks to the support of the Students’ Council and Board of Directors for agreeing to major undertakings, and management for their ability to help make those asks happen!). If you’d like to see a full list of where I landed on my campaign promises and most tasks assigned by Board and Council, you can check out my Executive Action Plan Accountability Report that I prepared for your FY2020 President (Michael) and the Board for April 2020. 

Righting the Ship: fixing student finances 

Walking into the FY2020 year, the Federation was facing a deficit of approximately $500,000 due to overspending, costs borne of the struggles of the Bomber, and inability to adjust fees staff salary growth in excess of inflation (based on UW Board of Governors negotiated agreements with the Staff Association). Cash flow was in an all-time low with current assets on a downward trajectory and liabilities trending upwards since 2012 (since shortly after Federation Hall was taken over by the University). Capital expenses were paid out of reserves, with essential capital expenditures and renewal of assets (like areas in the SLC proper that need a significant face-lift) neglected.  A full background can be found in the FY2020 Budget Report for the Students’ Council and Board of Directors. 

Since the first of May, I have worked diligently to right the ship. While walking into COVID-19 for my successor is no easy feat, I leave knowing I made some substantial improvements to the financial position of the organization:  

  • WUSA will contribute to its internal reserves — for the first time since FY2015 when financing out of savings began — by running a surplus of approximately $220,000 due to a combination of budget tightening to prepare for SCI, refocusing of business operations on minimum performance targets, and necessary fee adjustments to account for previous internal borrowing and staff salary adjustments 

  • Working with UW HR and Finance to build an application to the Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy (CEWS) program to recover wage costs without compromising WUSA’s mission to students 

  • Working capital improvements mean that WUSA will not be as tight for cash during the Spring Term and be able to meet its expected obligations under ordinary circumstances (and will be far better facing COVID-19 than it would have otherwise) 

  • Adjustments made to the management and premium levels of the restricted, administered funds to prevent continuous year-over-year borrowing against the general fund (e.g. correcting the substantial deficit the Student Refugee Program (SRP) amassed in the prior five years by a one-time fee adjustment and introducing Policy 65: Student Refugee Program, to better manage the financial administration of the program into the future) 

  • Revamping the budget and appropriations model for mandatory and Council-discretionary spending (see Policy 66: Budget and Appropriations) to ensure deficit spending is casual or time-limited and not relied upon, building new systems for continuing appropriations to avoid back-and-forth between the Students’ Council and Board of Directors for continuing appropriations during the spring term, and allowing for more significant in-year adjustments to the nearly $30M operating budget of WUSA (across WUSA, Societies, and the Administered Programs) 

  • Introducing the Capital Program Fund and associated undergraduate student capital program fee (which was unanimously adopted by the Fall 2019 General Meeting) to support capital maintenance, renewal, and improvements to student spaces across campus from the SLC to the MC Comfy or POETS Lounge 

  • Revitalizing the Student Life and EOI Endowment Funds to enhance student experience, while enabling WUSA to bill out its administrative and promotional costs up to a limit of five percent (5%) of annual investment income for the funds 

  • Developing a Societies Fluctuation Reserve (SFR) to cover off liabilities from the Societies and address growing retained earnings  

  • Recovering administrative and promotional costs of the administered funds from the administered program funds (UPass, Health, SAP/Empower Me, Dental, Legal, SRP) so they are no longer borne by the operating budget directly 

In addition, I led a significant reworking of the organization’s fund accounting model to better support and plan for the potential outsized liabilities related to the Societies, staffing costs, and to ensure there was a policy and procedural framework in place to provide for good financial governance (see Policy 67 and Board Procedure 30: Reserves and Reserve Funds).  

New Agreements, Programs, and Operations 

This year, several previously negotiated agreements were expiring, and new programs requested by Council or referendum needed establishing.  

Legal Protection Service 

Beginning the spring term, I had the pleasure of hitting the ground running – well above what I imagined my weight bracket to be – with the Legal Program contract. I spent 3 months negotiating a contract and successfully implemented this service for Fall 2020, which has been a huge hit and has supported thousands of cases for students with respect to tenancy, academic, and employment rights. While the billing mechanisms for this program are in flux, it has provided great benefit to so many and I can’t wait to see the lasting impacts of this contribution to the broader student support network. 

UPass Transit Agreement and handling future disruptions 

Since Fall, I have led the renegotiation of the UPass Agreement with support from Matt, your FY2020 VP Education. Together, we championed student ridership in the Region of Waterloo and have been able to realize considerable program improvements. This includesearly UPass access for students during Orientation and expanded opt-in and refund provisions, while maintaining more competitive fees relative to other student associations, and lower year-over-year growth rate for fee amounts (down from 5% to 3.0% per annum, before accounting for inflation). While we offered our negotiated agreement up to all the other student governments in the Region, I ensured that on average a UWaterloo undergrad sees a measurable benefit in savings against a standard UPass plan (the below table maps this out a bit, before any overheads and put on the fees for administration and strategic planning). 

UPass Rate Table

Michael and I will be signing the new UPass agreement in the coming week, following transitional review with our successors! This means UPass will continue for another 5 years, with automatic program renewal after a bilateral review period in year four. Negotiating lower rates also allows WUSA to address future transit disruptions with the development of a new “Transit Disruption Contingency and Liability Reserve”. This reserve targeted for approximately $3.0M, built-up over a period of 5-10 years via a 2% strategic overhead placed on the UPass fee, will allow WUSA to provide 1-2 weeks of per diem transportation subsidy or enable operation of auxiliary transit options during future periods of sustained and significant disruption to transit. 

Expanding the Health Plan and introducing improvements for mental health  

This year WUSA used its Health Fund Reserve to provide for two major benefits expansions:  

  • Increasing mental health supports via insurance coverage increases (downstream) and introducing a new Student Assistance Program (Empower Me) 

  • General increases for benefits based on student feedback provided by your elected Student Councillors 

Kicking on with a mental health program revamp in the spring term, I had the pleasure of partnering with  UW Campus Wellness  and the Graduate Students Association to lead a procurement process for new mental health support programs for expanded on and off campus access. These changes were supported by the Students’ Council and backed up by recommendations laid out in the President’s Advisory Committee on Student Mental Health (PAC-SMH) for expanding healthcare funding and developing better referral mechanisms to community partners. In late November 2019, the Health Plan Oversight Committee approved the introduction of the new Empower Me Student Assistance Program, which began on January 1, 2020, costing less than $5.00 per student per year! This short-term, solution-focused counselling service is now available 24/7/365 and operates on an uncapped model, ensuring that you receive as much care as you need from professionally regulated counsellors, psychologists, health professionals, and life coaches.  

In addition, we doubled the annual coverage limits for mental health services under the health plan to 80% coverage for mental health practitioners with a new total of $800.00 per calendar year; expanded the scope of allowed practitioners covered under the health plan to include psychologists, registered social workers, psychotherapists, and clinical counsellors; and eliminated barriers in treatment imposed by the previous requirements for a doctor’s referral to see specialists. 

This was but one of the major overhauls I was able to oversee this year! The other being a general expansion of program coverage from vision and chiropractic care to growth drug formulary, so a greater number of prescription drugs are available for students who need them. In total, these coverage changes include but are not limited to: 

  • Removing the $20 per visit cap on chiropractic care, to the new 80% up to $400 annually 

  • Increasing eye examination coverage from $50 to $100 per 24 months 

  • Increasing eyeglasses and contact lens coverage from $75 to $125 per 24 months 

  • With advice from students and your FY2020 VP Student Life, Amanda, we approved hundreds of new prescription pharmaceuticals to the drug formulary under the Health Plan, including addition of a variety of migraine medications, contraceptives, vaccinations, and hormonal treatments. 

Student Refugee Program 

For the last number of years, the Student Refugee Program (SRP) has been running on a deficit balance; the fees it collects in revenue are not offsetting completely its expenses. This has meant that each year WUSA’s General Fund loans money to cover off the overage. With the onset of SCI this year leading to predicted opt-outs of 30% from fee payment, WUSA’s Accounting & Finance Department flagged necessary changes. I was pleased to work closely with our Financial Officer (Cheryl), Director of Student Experience (Dave), and our SRP administrative team from St. Paul’s University College (Charlene, Mike, and Rick) to recommend substantial overhauls to the program to fix its financial footing. Our team championed an increase in the SRP Fee for the first time since 2008 from $1.03 to $4.95 effective Winter 2020 to cover off the significant deficits accrued. This change has revitalized this great program and – thanks to everyday students like us play a vital role in its success – the SRP is back on its feet, providing student refugees with tuition and living expenses support!  

Societies Agreement and New Fluctuation Reserve 

Working with Michael, I supported the renegotiation of the Societies Agreement over the last ten months! This updated version properly recognizes the societies importance within WUSA's federated governance structure (hence the name "Federation of Students"), and balances HR, financial, and legal risks. The renewed agreement (which is technically a WUSA corporate policy) came into effect on the first of May. However, this has just been part of the greater effort to support our constituency Societies and College Student Unions. Earlier this year, with the onset of SCI, concerns about operations and staffing liabilities were raised at the Committee of Presidents table. Meanwhile, risks associated with unrestricted retained earnings growth were top of mind from a financial stewardship lens. Working with the Societies, and our auditors and lawyers, we determined we could solve one problem with another: commit the Societies' retained earnings to a centralized “Societies Fluctuation Reserve” to act as a staffing reserve, stabilize term-over-term fluctuations in fee opt-out rates, and equalize service levels across the campus between faculties and colleges. 

Principles 

I have strived this year to make value-based decisions from a principled basis with everything I have done. While my job is to be a corporate steward and controller for WUSA’s operations and finances, I have tried to bring a student-focused lens to these decisions.  

My key tenets have been: 

  • Leave things better than I found them 

  • Representative democratic decision-making is immensely important, especially in a heavily co-op school 

  • Showcase value-for-money to students in every action  

  • Introduce and enhance group benefits programs that data demonstrates student use and desire for 

  • Ask “why” at every opportunity, but don’t forget to reflect on how 

  • And most importantly take risks, but not too often and not too significant 

The sum of how I acted on these beliefs can be characterized by a quote I took away from one of my favourite co-ops out in southern California: Dare Might Things! And so, as I conclude this (rather lengthy) summary, I would emphasize that note: 

"Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered [sic] by failure... than to rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much, because they live in a grey [sic] twilight that knows not victory nor defeat." (Theodore Roosevelt, in his speech “The Strenuous Life, A Speech before the Hamilton Club,” Chicago, April 10, 1899

A final thanks and acknowledgement! 

Thank you for giving me the honour of serving as your Vice President, Operations & Finance. It has been a humbling experience full of learning, growing, and listening. Through debate with your elected student representatives, external challenges, and overcoming the considerable workload these Executive roles tend to be, I have grown as a leader and a manager; I have made friends I will keep for a lifetime; and I have dared mighty things. I started this blog on a note that I was carrying on work into the 2021 fiscal year to transition my successor; and while this is true on some projects which take longer to transition due to their complexity given the current situation, I leave feeling confident that my successor is up to what this role will throw at her! Alana is more than capable, and under the strategic leadership of Abbie Simpson and support from her Executive Team, I have no doubts she will do some fantastic things this year. 

Some specific thanks: 

  • To the UW Administration I had the pleasure of working with (especially Dennis) – thank you for caring for students, supporting real change, and agreeing to principled decision-making, even when doing so might be less than ideal. While we did not agree on everything, challenging ideas and finding compromises has led to some great improvements for students that will be felt for years to come! You have been excellent role models, and I look forward to staying in touch 

  • To the Councillors and Directors who I worked with – thank you for supporting my initiatives, listening to my tirades on various troubles, and asking tough questions! Your buy-in, critique, and approval has made my work possible 

  • To my former staff – you made all I did possible; I cannot thank you enough for helping me achieve as much as we did! Your continuous encouragement, drive to help me achieve the enormous list of asks we had on our plate, and your patience in explaining the many areas I was a complete novice enabled our success. I cannot thank you enough for your enduring support 

  • To Michael, Amanda, and Matt – thank you for being there for me every step of the way! I’ll leave my personal and emotional thank you to each of you between us but suffice it to say I could not have made it through any of this without you.  

This experience has been wonderful, and I feel I have accomplished much in my twelve months as an executive and three years involved in WUSA via Students’ Council and Board of Directors. I am glad to have been able to serve and give back to Waterloo, but I am also excited to move on with my life and career (I’m looking at pursuing materials engineering).  

WUSA and UWaterloo will always maintain a special place in my heart. I can’t wait to return in 5-10 years and see the long-term impact of the work I’ve put in. 

I wish you all safety and health during these challenging times. Signing off as the last Feds VPOF and first WUSA VPOF, 

Sen