The joys of making budget cuts

It was over two years ago that my department’s Computer Support Manager left, leaving me as the de facto leader of the IT staff in my department.  With one professional and four student staff members, I don’t have a great deal of administrative duties.  Most of my leadership is directed toward mentoring and coordinating daily tasks.  The department head doesn’t even feel the need to meet with me regularly (I take that as a sign that we’re doing a good job).

I don’t even get a budget to work with.  Our IT purchases come out of the department’s general funds, so I just spend money when we need something, and if the department runs out of money, they’ll tell me to stop.  Fortunately, this hasn’t been a problem to date, but the University has asked our department to make a 2-3% cut in our budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1.  All of a sudden, I find myself having to make big important-type decisions.

Being a state institution, jobs are fairly safe.  I don’t foresee myself or our Windows person being axed or asked to stay home more often.  The students have less inherent job security, but the department seems to have accepted how useful they are (and students are CHEAP!), not to mention the fact that I’d work in the dark before I got rid of my students.  On the other hand, we do have an annual agreement with the central computing group on campus that gets us access to some extra resources and also some personnel contribution.  Two of the three people we get have already been cut to part-time by their department.  Unfortunately, the only way to save in that agreement is to reduce one of them further.  It is hard to make that recommendation, but few choices exist.

As I watched “Meet the Press” this morning, I tried to come up with ways to cut costs.  The first thing that came to mind was to reduce the speed of some of our network connections.  The networking group charges $120 annually for 100 Mbps connections, but only $60 for 10 Mbps.  It has been the standard in our department to pay for 1-2 connections in each office and lab (depending on which subnets are needed).  As a result, networking costs are the single largest non-salary IT expense.  Large data users would have a hard time getting by on “just” 10 Mbps (some even pay for 1 Gbps connections!), but there’s no reason a secretary, for example, can’t be happy with 10 Mbps.

The other big cost in my department is printing.  In the centrally-managed labs on campus, print quotas are used.  Faculty and staff get $40 per semester, and students get $20 per semester.  Each page of black and white printing costs 4 cents, and color pages cost 12 cents.  Departmentally-managed printers work however the deparment decides.  My department decided that the “public” printers are free.  Research groups can have their own printers that they pay for, but there’s no cost to use the departmental printers.  This includes our 42″ poster printer, with paper that costs about a dollar per foot.  One of the side effects of this policy is that the color printer is sometimes used for jobs that contain no or little color.  In the past, I’ve tried to convince the department head that we need to implement a policy to encourage the reduction of printing.  It fell on deaf ears, but we’ll see if current conditions give that suggestion a more receptive audience.

One thing I have managed to accomplish is to change the way we charge researchers for space on our file server.  When the file server was first set up, the hardware cost was divided by the available space, and the end result is that there’s a one-time charge of $400 per 96 GB slice.  That worked initially, but 5 years into the server’s life, it’s obvious that it isn’t a sustainable model.  We pay a vendor $1700 per year for hardware and software support, not to mention the $1/GB we pay for backups.  Not only that,  but the way the funding rules work, this space can’t be charged to research grants.  If a research is out of startup funds, they can’t purchase more space.  After over a year of gentle prodding to our overworked Business Manager, we’re finally in a position to begin charging for this as a cost center.  Research groups will pay a smaller annual fee that can be charged to federal grants.

Of course, our state has yet to pass a budget, so that complicates matters as well.  I guess we’ll see how things go.  With any luck, the economy will rebound later this year, and the budget will return to a more normal state (and maybe salaries will be unfrozen!)

3 thoughts on “The joys of making budget cuts

  1. Matt, the academic environment certainly has it’s own peculiarities. We hired our Windows person out of the private sector and it took her a while to get accustomed to how things work. For example, probably a good 50% of our users have admin rights on at least one machine. It makes life very…entertaining.

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