The University of North Texas takes seriously its Mean Green branding as a decades-old, popular Sack & Save grocery store finds its I-35E property the target of an eminent domain pursuit the university has green lighted with a willingness to use legal meanness to accomplish. And worse, this seems just one more in a serious of UNT “red flag” worthy actions.
What’s eminent domain? It’s government’s increasingly used ability to seize private property for public use and without the property owner’s consent. While the 2005 Kelo v. New London ruling for some years depressed government’s insatiable thirst for taxpayer resources – fruits of our labor or our land – that trend is now reversing.
UNT System Chancellor Lee Jackson told NBC 5 – KXAS land acquisitions usually involve a property owner being offered “a far market price” as determined by the university and the owner sells.
Sack & Save owner/operator Gary Shelton called the move “totally unexpected.” Shelton leases the property from another individual whose secretary reportedly responded “we know nothing about it” when asked about the potential sale.
While recognizing I-35E expansion could consume a portion of the store’s parking lot, Shelton and his employees were caught off guard.
“A lot of students walk here to buy groceries,” Shelton said of the store which for about 30 years has provided students – those with and without transportation – a competitively-priced food outlet located within safe, sensible proximity to numerous dorms and other UNT facilities.
In citing a “pressing need for facilities during the highway reconstruction process and into the long term right at the mouth of our campus and the face of our campus,” Jackson indicated the property could become home to a new community services center and long-term, perhaps student housing.
Per The Denton Record-Chronicle:
The Board of Regents voted to acquire the property after an executive session on Thursday. If a deal is not reached with the building owner, the university was given authority by the board to use eminent domain to acquire the building. The space would then be repurposed to house university departments and offices displaced by ongoing highway construction, as well as construction projects on campus such as the new student union.
Government actions to forcibly take possession of private property should never be taken lightly.
Higher education institutions have come under increasing scrutiny in recent years. Tuition costs have skyrocketed as enrollments have similarly increased while colleges and universities struggle with completion rates. Many graduates are unable to find jobs while employers routinely characterize those hired lacking basic skills and workplace-readiness capabilities.
Then there’s student debt. As secondary education irresponsibly promotes the everyone-should-go-to-college mantra, colleges aggressively recruit anyone with a pulse and student debt now stands at $1.2 trillion.
Warning signs abound and with this, a college education’s value becomes increasingly questioned.
And UNT is no stranger to scrutiny. In April, the Chronicle reported recent accounting investigations found the university potentially overstated its financial position by $23 million.
Per the paper:
Audit investigations by both the UNT System’s internal auditors and Deloitte & Touche report that a journal entry was made to account for unresolved collections and were represented as accounts receivable, according to the documents, which were obtained by the Denton Record-Chronicle through an open records request.
The catalyst for both investigations was an anonymous complaint to the State Auditor’s Office in 2012 that suggested the entry had been made to “hide thousands of unreconciled transactions” since 2004, according to the reports.
It’s the latest financial problem to affect UNT. The campus may also have to repay the state millions of dollars in a separate matter for misusing state funds to pay some employee benefits.
In September, The Morning News wrote UNT may owe at least $75.6 million with its accounting manipulations perhaps dating back as far as the 1970s.
The last years have seen much turnover in UNT’s leadership ranks. President Gretchen Bataille abruptly resigned in 2010. The Morning News speculated the departure centered on issues between Bataille and Jackson including the recent relocation of the UNT System headquarters from Denton to Dallas and tuition increases.
A month prior, investigative reporting by The Lone Star Report revealed Bataille having used UNT stationery for a letter to then-Texas State Sen. John Carona, R-Dallas, endorsing his Texas Local Option Transportation Bill (TLOTA), a bill which sought to raise taxes for commuter rail, but ultimately died in the Texas House of Representatives.
Taxpayer-funded lobbying through which public officials – elected and otherwise – use taxpayer dollars to lobby for additional taxpayer dollars is a source of outrage for many taxpayer advocates. Taking this process a step further with lobbyists actively recruiting other public officials to join in advocacy bill for a bill like TLOTA is further insult to hard-working, often cash-strapped Texans.
“This advocacy by a Texas public university official is outrageous,” Peggy Venable, state director of Americans for Prosperity Texas, told The Lone Star Report. “It is not Bataille’s role to advocate for cities and counties or determine what funds are necessary for ‘regional rail’ and transportation projects. Her attention should be focused on educating the students at the University of North Texas, not providing political cover for officials who want to raise taxes.”
Bataille was replaced on an interim basis first by Phil Diebel and then Dr. V. Lane Rawlins who officially assumed the position in late 2012. Rawlins’ March 2013 retirement announcement brought the hiring of earlier this year of Neal Smatresk.
Replacements in other high-level finance and administrative positions have also taken place.
The UNT Dallas College of Law is another example of the university getting what it wants. It opened its doors this fall despite Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recommendations that Texas is already home to sufficient law schools. Note the Texas A&M University School of Law in Fort Worth only opened in August 2013 after A&M paid Texas Wesleyan University $25 million for its law school program.
The Morning News recently discussed the diminishing opportunity for lawyers as law school graduates face a job market that is grim and oversaturated with applicants. Throw student debt into the mix and the long-term prospects only worsen.
This reality should hardly be a surprise and conjures additional concern for those of us who have experienced or at least understand the contrived nature of many legal actions. Probate is an area that quickly comes to mind.
With the January 2012 announcement of Senior U.S. District Judge Royal Furgeson as founding dean of the UNT Dallas College of Law, these thoughts were reflected at Estate of Denial, a web site that focuses on the culture of corruption often surrounding probate (wills, trusts, guardianships and powers of attorney):
We are strong believers in entrepreneurialism and economic freedom. Neither of these principals, however, should ever be perverted to encourage the creation of new income generation streams by corporatizing estate looting and other abusive probate practices into a growth industry business activity to fulfill self-serving goals of an individual lawyer or small firm.
And such a threat becomes additionally of concern when other sources indicate estate planning sectors of the legal industry are experiencing billing pressures.
The new law school is described as “the only public law school in North Texas, and will provide the region with an affordable alternative to private law schools, attracting a high percentage of minority students and easing the debt on all students, as they embark on their legal careers.”
Easing the debt? Maybe for students, but this will be nothing more than a new financial burden if you’re a Texas taxpayer – or a future Texas taxpayer! And student debt is an overwhelming issue which thankfully some students understand and are working to educate their peers.
With significant probate abuse perspective, maybe we can offer ourselves for a visiting lecture series – think there would be any interest in “Surviving Probate Abuse: A Target’s Perspective on the Legal Industry and Its Love of Looting Liberty, Estates”?
Not to be deterred by fiscal or intellectual realities, UNT moves forward on other fronts as well.
Apogee Stadium, the university’s 30,850-seat stadium with a reported $79 million cost, opened in 2011. A $100+ million renovation and expansion of the student union building has been termed the “largest construction project in its history” is underway. Not to be left out, a Greek Life Center – the first of its kind in the nation – opened last spring with its official ribbon cutting scheduled to coincide with this fall’s university homecoming.
The bottom line. Today’s public higher education industry is in trouble. The Mean Green is a great example of red flags that abound with regard to the overreach and spending of these institutions.
The pursuit of Denton’s Sack & Save exemplifies exactly this. Eminent domain is theoretically about the common good. That grocery store has for years provided “good” to UNT’s student population with accessible, cost-efficient food options. In years of skyrocketing tuition and diminished employment prospects, one would think this resource would be valued.
Additionally, upcoming plans sound geared toward accommodating campus administrators rather than students. Although a long-term student housing option seems in the mix, the need for such housing had best be watched as education consumers seem to be rethinking the need for college as it exists today and the best way in which advanced studies can be delivered.
Overreach is seen at all levels of today’s government. College campuses are no exception.