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Ewu Fat Cats Sit In Luxury At Our Expense

Sun., Oct. 1, 1995

Sometimes I get so hacked off by the way we taxpayers are reamed, I have to sit down and count to 10.

Where better to blow off steam than in a plush, $956 leather chair cozied up next to a $14,000 cherry wood table?

Ahhh. The cotton is high out here in Eastern Washington University’s posh new conference room.

My modest alma mater, EWU employees tell me, is weathering troubled economic times: Tuition is up. Enrollment is down. Mutinous maintenance workers threaten to crash homecoming.

Even so, you’ll never catch Eastern’s fat cats hunting bargains at a Smith’s Home Furnishing’s liquidation sale.

High-roller administrators coughed up over $36,000 of the public’s money for 22 swivel chairs and a gorgeous 10-by-22-foot table. Then they all but hid the tabletop’s luxurious inlay under a $1,200 thick chunk of glaring plate glass.

Let’s be real. Eastern needs a $14,000 table like it needs a nuclear submarine.

What do these higher-education spendthrifts think they’re running out in Cheney - the Pentagon? The Spokane Transit Authority’s money-pit bus depot?

The ostentatious conference room is part of a $10 million Pence Union Building expansion finished last spring.

Room 261 is the nicest digs on campus. Besides the spiffy table and chairs, there are sophisticated lighting controls, a huge chandelier, panels of dark wood and an electronically operated movie screen.

“The only thing missing is a panel that opens up into a bar,” says student body president Justin Franke, who calls the room a “showcase.”

Don’t give ‘em any ideas, Justin.

As I tried to get to the bottom of this boondoggle, an EWU public relations flack told me she “didn’t understand” what the fuss was about.

Yeah, why should taxpayers care about a piddly 36 grand?

State Rep. Steve Hargrove, R-Poulsbo, has an idea. He wrote EWU President Mark Drummond, demanding some answers.

Why should “citizens of Washington, many of whom are being forced out of their family homes due to excessive taxation, pay for this kind of extravagance?”

Drummond wrote back, defending the purchase. Surprise, surprise. He explained that a fund generated by state timber sales actually paid for the table and chairs.

Big deal. “No matter where he got it from, it’s still state money,” snaps Hargrove.

Buying a fancy table won’t bust the university. But it “doesn’t send the kind of message that ought to be sent,” says Spokane Mayor Jack Geraghty, also a member of the EWU Board of Trustees.

Tom Balderree views the table and chairs as arrogant symbols of how out of touch administrators are with the working stiffs who pay their salaries.

“If I had a kid going here, paying more tuition, I’d be ticked,” the EWU maintenance man adds.

“If this were a board room in some corporate office that’d be one thing. But that’s $14,000 of taxpayer money sitting there.”

Balderree and his co-workers have been covering the campus with fliers that blame management for letting the university go to seed:

“The campus grounds cannot be properly maintained… The exterior fire escape walls at Pearce Hall are an embarrassing eyesore. Bathrooms in the dorms, like Streeter and Morrison, are in shabby condition….”

Maintenance workers vow to picket homecoming festivities later this month if conditions don’t improve.

Rich Gibb, one of the university directors who watched over the PUB project, concedes the school is in a budget crunch. But he also claims the table’s grandness will be enjoyed for generations to come.

“Cost is important,” he says, but it should never take precedence over “quality and value.”

Besides, Rich, spending other people’s money is so darn much easier than spending your own.

, DataTimes

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