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TALLAHASSEE | University of North Florida’s president got a scolding from the governor and Cabinet on Tuesday for failing to immediately notify the state when a bond rating was downgraded.The mild rebuke came two months after Standard & Poor’s reduced...

UNF president scolded by Gov. Scott, Cabinet over bond-rating downgrade

TALLAHASSEE | University of North Florida’s president got a scolding from the governor and Cabinet on Tuesday for failing to immediately notify the state when a bond rating was downgraded.The mild rebuke came two months after Standard & Poor’s reduced...

UNF president scolded by Gov. Scott, Cabinet over bond-rating downgrade

TALLAHASSEE | University of North Florida’s president got a scolding from the governor and Cabinet on Tuesday for failing to immediately notify the state when a bond rating was downgraded.

The mild rebuke came two months after Standard & Poor’s reduced the rating on debt for the UNF fitness center from an “A+” to an “A.” The university sent an email to state regulators eight business days later, but it took even more time for Ben Watkins, director of the state’s Division of Bond Finance, to receive the news.

Gov. Rick Scott’s office emailed UNF President John Delaney on Thursday and told him to attend the Cabinet meeting and explain what happened. The conversation at Tuesday’s meeting eventually turned away from the rating downgrade and notification issues to a wider debate about how state universities finance major projects.

Watkins explained that the S&P review initially focused on two projects that UNF had financed through not-for-profit “direct-support organizations” like the Boosters, Alumni Association and Foundation. At the eleventh hour, there were questions about the $16 million Student Wellness and Sports Education Center that broke ground in 2010; that is the debt that was downgraded mainly because of lagging enrollment and state funding at UNF after the recession.

Scott, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Attorney General Pam Bondi serve as trustees for the State Board of Administration, the agency that oversees investments. The only Cabinet member not on the board is Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, but he also raised questions about state universities’ ability to go into debt without SBA approval.

“That raises some pretty serious issues that I think merit further exploration,” Putnam said.

When universities want to finance projects through their direct-support organizations, the approval is granted through the Florida Board of Governors. State University System Chancellor Marshall Criser said that process is just as thorough and rigorous as the SBA.

Although Scott and the Cabinet were concerned about the UNF downgrade and how it could affect the ability of other state universities to borrow money, Delaney insisted there would be no impact. He said the “A” bond rating still put UNF on par with its sister institutions with strong finances, and he noted the project is several years old.

Criser agreed, although he said he will review the process for direct-support organization backed bonds with state officials.

 

Tia Mitchell: (850) 933-1321

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