Students to vote on Assembly Hall fee
CHAMPAIGN — The University of Illinois is poised to award another contract for the $160 million Assembly Hall renovation even as students prepare to vote on a $50 annual fee that could raise millions for the project.
A Board of Trustees committee will review a proposed $2 million professional services contract Monday with AECOM to develop detailed architectural plans for the project, said Associate Athletic Director Kent Brown. The Los Angeles-based architectural firm was initially hired in November 2011 to create schematic designs that could be used for fundraising.
Meanwhile, backers of a proposed $25-a-semester fee increase for the project have collected enough student signatures to place the question on the March 5-6 campus election ballot. The campus Student Election Commission certified the signatures Thursday.
Commission Chairman Adam Joines said any referendum question requires signatures from 7 percent of the student body — currently, 2,791 students. The Assembly Hall question received 3,340, he said.
The proposed fee increase would be paid by both undergraduates and graduate students and would cover about 17 percent of the renovation's cost over the 30-year life of the bonds financing the project, supporters said. But officials have not said publicly how much money that is, how much the fee would raise annually or how long it would be in effect.
The campus has almost 41,000 students, though some are exempted from fees. If all students paid the fee, that would raise $2.1 million annually, or $61.5 million over 30 years. However, some students are exempt from fees, Brown noted.
The Student Election Commission is still working with student sponsors of the fee proposal on the final wording of the ballot question, as well as an explanatory paragraph to go with it, Joines said Thursday. He expects a final version to be approved by early next week.
Joines said commissioners asked them to state how long the fee will be in effect and "where the money will go."
Campus officials say it makes sense for students to contribute to the project because they benefit from Assembly Hall programming — not just sporting events but concerts, Broadway musicals and the like.
But some students have questioned the fee, saying they haven't been given enough information about it with the election just days away. They also argued that other alternatives should be more fully explored before committing millions of dollars in student fees.
Administrators have said the plan all along was to pay for the bulk of the $160 million renovation with private funding — naming rights, corporate sponsorships and the like — but supplement that with student fees.
Among the improvements planned for the Assembly Hall are air-conditioning, student seating close to the court, private boxes, restrooms on upper levels and a premium section dedicated to the Orange Krush.
Construction is tentatively scheduled to start in March 2014, at the conclusion of the basketball season, and be completed in time for the 2016-17 season, Brown said. The work would be done in stages so that the Illini could play their full schedule there from November to March in the intervening seasons, Brown said.
Students already pay $544 a semester to support the Assembly Hall and other fee-supported units on campus, such as Campus Recreation and the Illini Union. The service fee, which is $283 a semester, covers salaries, programming and other operating expenses. The general fee, which is $261 a semester, covers debt service, building upgrades and related costs for those units as well as for athletic facilities; $34 of that goes to help pay off bonds from two Memorial Stadium renovations.
Altogether, student fees total $1,443 a semester and are set to increase next academic year to $1,458.
Claudia Christy, a UI sophomore who is part of a student committee backing the proposal, said the fee increase must be approved by a majority of those students who vote in the election.
Students will also decide whether to continue two fees totaling almost $20 a semester:
— A $2 Collegiate Readership Fee, which provides free copies of the New York Times, Chicago Tribune and USA Today for students across campus.
— A fee supporting the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, which also gives students a discount on tickets.
Both fees were initially refundable, meaning students could opt out each semester. But last year administrators converted nine student fees for a variety of causes into a single mandatory "student-initiated fee."
The rationale was to provide the units supported by those fees with more consistent budget expectations. As part of the change, administrators agreed to put every fee up for student review every four years, on a rotating basis.
Students will also choose a new student trustee, representatives of the Illinois Student Senate and members of the Student Organization Resource Fee board, which allocates fee revenue to student groups.