Academy must change its busi­ness fees, be more trans­par­ent about fi­nances

The Capital - - OPINION -

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.

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