By BOB ANEZ/Associated Press Writer
The state Board of Regents balked Thursday at raising student fees as part of the plan to bail out of the deficit-plagued University of Montana athletic program, after members could not agree on how much students should have to pay.
Members rejected a proposal pitched by UM President George Dennison that would have imposed a new athletic fee on part-time students and increased the fee on full-time students. They also voted down an alternative to delay the latter increase for a year.
Unless the board takes up the issue again when its meeting resumes Friday, a complete solution to the nearly $1 million deficit in the Grizzly sports program will have to wait until the July meeting. The two proposed fee increases would raise an estimated $77,500 the first year.
A discouraged Dennison sat staring at the table after the 4-3 vote. A delay in regent action will leave UM athletics in financial limbo for another two months, he said.
''It's not knowing exactly where we are,'' he said. ''You can't go back to the drawing board. We've already used the drawing board to draw this up. I thought the solution proposed would work.''
Regent Chairman John Mercer was equally frustrated.
''The Board of Regents needs to make decisions,'' he said. ''We should send a message right now that this is the will of the board that there will be no fee increase'' in 2004.
But other regents argued against boosting the fee at all, even though student leaders reluctantly endorsed the idea.
''This is not the students' problem,'' said Lila Taylor of Busby. She suggested UM officials look for more spending reductions in athletics.
Thursday's developments came after the regents reviewed a report detailing the causes of UM athletics' chronic financial problems. Prepared by a special committee formed to investigate the matter, it said officials at the Missoula school failed to properly monitor the athletic department's budget that has had deficits for five of the six most recent years.
Panel members said they were stunned to learn that athletic program officials mistakenly believed that finding last-minute money to temporarily balance the books each year resolved the ongoing budget deficit.
''We found it incredible that they could be so stupid,'' said Diane Barz, chairwoman of the committee.
UM officials unveiled last week their plan for gradually eliminating the deficit, mostly by raising more money. The proposal included imposing an athletic fee on part-time students for the first time, charging students to attend football games, raising ticket prices and increasing the $60 annual athletic fee for full-time students to $76 by 2008.
It was that last change that bothered regents most.
''What is the responsibility of students in this thing?'' said Mike Foster, regent from Billings. ''They didn't cause this.''
Regent Richard Roehm of Bozeman said students already pay a lot to attend college and demanding more can prevent some from going to school. ''Every time we have a problem we can't say let's just go to the students,'' he said.
Mercer suggested the fee increase be delayed for a year and that the regents supply an equivalent amount of money from their own budget.
As the group with constitutional responsibility to manage the university system, ''we are taking some of the heat for the mistakes made on our watch,'' he said.
Under Mercer's proposal, the fee increase would not take effect in 2006 unless the deficit-recovery plan appears to be on track for keeping the sports program in the black.
But that did not satisfy most of the seven-member board. Roehm, Foster, Taylor and Christian Hur, the student regent, opposed the idea.
Roehm said he wanted to wait for written assurances from Dennison at the July meeting that UM will adopt all the recommendations for improvements in the athletic department's budgeting process made by the special committee.
''We're trying to correct a crisis of confidence in our management and oversight,'' he said. ''I don't understand the urgency to pass this today.''
Mercer said he believes Montanans want to put the issue of the UM budget trouble behind them and the regents should oblige. And he chastised those who liked neither his solution nor Dennison's.
''When a group of people put together a solution and you vote it down you are responsible for solving the budget problem,'' he said. ''Those of you who voted no have to come up with a solution.''