Academy must change its business fees, be more transparent about finances
The Naval Academy is on solid ground when it charges couples who want to use the Naval Academy Chapel for weddings.
And, it is reasonable to charge a small fee to all private businesses that wish to provide services to midshipmen, staff, faculty, alumni and others who live, work or spend time on the Yard.
But on Oct. 1, the Naval Academy Business Services Division crossed well out of bounds when it told companies providing services such as wedding photography to fork over 20 percent of what they charge — and then demanded they not pass on the added expense to customers.
It's this last element of a new contract that indicates the division was concerned how this would be perceived. By banning companies from passing increased expenses to customers — most often academy graduates — the division was trying to blunt reaction to the new policy.
Small business owners who are afraid of retaliation aren't likely to publicly complain. Navy officers and their families, however, would be much more likely to demand an explanation of price gouging.
The explanation, according to a Naval Academy spokesman, is a shortfall in the Midshipmen Welfare Fund. This is a non-taxpayer supported source of money for extra-curricular activities, intermural sports and other benefits enjoyed by midshipmen.
The academy says the revenue for the fund has dried up but that the new policy was aimed at controlling retailers. It seems far more likely a decision was made to place the burden of maintaining the fund on small businesses.
The responsibility for running weddings was moved from the academy's Chaplain Center in October and turned over to the business department. In short, the academy decided to monetize weddings.
What's missing from this picture is transparency. The civilian oversight board for the academy, the Board of Visitors, rarely concerns itself with finances because the budget is largely controlled by the Navy. That's a mistake.
The Business Services Divison generates revenues for legitimate needs. The board should understand if the division is falling short on its responsibility — funding the Midshipmen Welfare Fund — and why.
Vice Adm. Ted Carter, academy superintendent, plans to review this new policy. But that review is only being conducted because the policy became public with our story on Sunday. Two members of Congress who sit on the board of visitors also are asking questions.
We urge the admiral to modify the policy to include a more reasonable fee. And while the academy has the right to vet businesses providing services at the academy and choose its vendors wisely, requiring inspection of financial records for three years seems egregious.
More importantly, the Board of Visitors must look carefully into nontaxpayer funded spending. The academy is a public institution and its finances must be transparent unless there is a valid national security reason.