Is a sweet deal in the works for YSU prez?

By Bertram de Souza

Having failed to get the State Teachers Retirement System of Ohio to agree to a plan that would have boosted his pension, Dr. David Sweet, president of Youngstown State University, has come up with an alternate proposal that is bound to generate heated public debate.

According to the chatter on and off campus, Sweet, whose contract expires June 30, 2010, wants YSU to buy his house in Liberty Township for $310,000. He and his wife, Pat, purchased it in 2000, when he began his presidency, for $210,000. The additional $100,000 Sweet is seeking would cover the cost of improvements made to the house.

What’s going on here? Simple: The president is coming to the end of his tenure and appears to have concluded that the board of trustees will soon begin the search for his successor. Thus, his focus on his pension.

When he was hired, his contract called for a base salary, along with other compensation, including housing and car allowances. The university also paid for such things as a country club membership and mileage. The contract was renewed in 2004 prior to its expiration, resulting in Sweet being able to serve to the end of June next year.

This year, his salary is $239,358; he receives a housing allowance of $60,180 and a car allowance of $9,078, for a total of $308,616.

Salary roll-in

When the contract was renewed, one of the provisions called for the house and car allowances to be phased out, and the total amount rolled into his salary. That would have increased Sweet’s income, and because of the way public pensions are figured, would have boosted his pension. The STRS calculates retirement benefits using years in the system and the employee’s final average salary of the highest three years.

But when the teachers retirement system was informed in 2005 that the housing and car allowances were being phased out and that money was being rolled into the president’s base salary, the response from the agency was not what Sweet or the board of trustees had anticipated.

The STRS remains firm in its contention that the section of state law defining compensation for pension purposes does not permit housing and car allowances to be included.

And so the chatter about Sweet’s wanting the university to buy his house. There also is talk of other options being explored to make up for the loss in the pension amount, such as a relocation allowance for when Sweet and his wife leave the Valley.

As the discussion about the president’s contract and pension picks up steam — the board of trustees will have to make the final determination — one of the questions that must be answered is this: Why should a public institution supported with taxpayer dollars be required to supplement the pension of a public employee?

In 2004, when Sweet’s contract was renegotiated, both he and the board of trustees acted in good faith believing that the housing and car allowances could be rolled into his base salary. The rejection by the STRS is nobody’s fault. The president is still receiving the allowances.

The current board of trustees — most of the members weren’t involved in the contract renewal — must decide whether Sweet’s demands are reasonable, given the worsening national, state and local economies.

The trustees must also address the issue of the time remaining in the contract. The agreement was not signed under duress, which means Sweet had every intention of serving until the end of June 2010.

Is there any reason why he cannot fulfill the requirements? And, if he does leave early, would that put pressure on the trustees to quickly find a replacement?

Financial challenges

This isn’t just about one man. It’s about an institution of higher learning that is facing major financial challenges, and growing discontent among the taxpayers who resent the fact that public pensions are guaranteed.

Indeed, YSU’s president himself is bracing for tough times. In an e-mail letter last week to the campus community, he issued this warning:

“We will not be able to either meet our obligations or fund new initiatives within a projected FY2010 budget of $152.8 million without significant reductions in expenses ...”

Talk about bad timing — for Sweet’s push to boost his pension.

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