Temple halts meal-plan increase, agrees to take another look

A room at Mitchell and Hillary Morgan Hall, a high rise luxury dormitory at Temple University.

After withering criticism from Mayor Kenney’s office, Temple University leaders said Wednesday that they would take another look at how much the city’s new sweetened-beverage tax is costing the school and whether to pass that cost on to students.

Temple’s board of trustees Tuesday approved a more than 6 percent increase in meal-plan costs for 2017-18, and university officials said 4.8 percent of the increase — about $68 — was due solely to the beverage tax. Ken Kaiser, chief financial officer, said the tax was estimated to cost the university $400,000 per semester.

Lauren Hitt, a spokeswoman for Kenney, Tuesday night blasted Temple and questioned whether the increase was really due to the tax, which the mayor has championed as a way to fund much-needed preschool programs.

“The beverage tax is becoming a popular scapegoat for unpopular decisions,” Hitt said. “Universities across the country have been raising meal plan fees because families are increasingly chafing at tuition increases, and universities still want to pay for their ever-growing administrative salaries and new, expensive buildings and amenities.”

She said Temple’s administrative staff has grown by 40 percent in recent years, and the university is planning to build a multimillion-dollar on-campus stadium -- for which it needs the city’s cooperation. She also mentioned the university’s “new 24-story dorm” that “includes flat screen TVs,” and pointed out that Temple’s beverage contract with Coca-Cola Co. approved last summer calls for the company to support the new stadium.

In turn, Temple spokesman Ray Betzner issued a two-paragraph statement Wednesday afternoon, emphasizing support for Kenney’s “critically important” initiative to expand preschool opportunities and promising another look at the issue.

“In the wake of the board's action [Tuesday], the city and Mayor Kenney have appropriately raised valid concerns about the accuracy of the numbers related to the impact of the soda tax on Temple students who choose the university's room and board plan for 2017-18,” Betzner said. “For this reason, the university will review the calculation and impact of the soda tax before enacting the meal plan fee for the coming year.”

Kenney's office was pleased.

“We commend Temple University for ... acting in the best interests of their students and all the children of Philadelphia,” Hitt said.

Not so happy was Anthony Campisi, a spokesman for Ax the Philly Bev Tax Coalition, made up of a number of Philadelphia businesses and residents, many of them involved in the soda industry. 

“It's time the mayor faces the facts that this tax is hurting Philadelphia families and businesses by causing the loss of good-paying union jobs and hurting small businesses while driving consumers to the suburbs,” he said.

Several other universities in the city said they also were seeing increased costs from the soda tax, but none had yet decided to raise meal-plan costs as a result.

At St. Joseph’s University, room-and-board costs have not been set, but the university anticipates an increase similar to other years', about 2 percent, said spokesman Joe Lunardi. The university estimates the beverage tax will cost the school $210,000 more a year.

The “plan is to absorb within other food/labor costs,” Lunardi said. 

Drexel University has not raised board rates — and is not planning to — in response to the tax, said spokeswoman Niki Gianakaris.

“Drexel and Aramark, the university's new food services vendor, are exploring various options on how to handle the soda tax and meet the needs of students and campus customers,” she said.

Chestnut Hill College set its rate before the tax went into effect, Lynn Ortale, vice president for student life, said. The tax is expected to cost the college $12,750 per semester.

“A decision hasn't yet been made regarding any subsequent years,” she said. “Vending machine rates went up 25 cents per soda.”

Philadelphia University raised the price of an a la carte 16-ounce soda from $1.49 to $1.73, said spokeswoman Debbie Goldberg, but it is not charging more for its board plan as a result of the tax.

La Salle University has not set room-and-board costs, said spokeswoman Jaine Lucas.

“Obviously it’s a cost that has increased,” she said of the tax, “so I am sure they are looking at that and trying to figure out how to minimize the cost on our students.”

The 1.5-cent-per-ounce beverage tax went into effect in January. Debate over it continues, with PepsiCo having announced planned layoffs and retailers reporting steep losses. But the tax also has, as Temple pointed out in its statement, provided preschool opportunities to 1,800 children.

On Tuesday, Kaiser, Temple’s CFO, said meal-plan costs also would rise an additional 1.6 percent for contractual obligations, bringing the total increase to more than 6 percent. A minimum meal plan would have cost $1,444 next year with the increase.

Two Temple board members said after the meeting, where the board approved the increase without discussion, that they were confused. The administration, said trustees Jane Scaccetti and Ronald Donatucci, did not tell the board that the increase was being driven by the soda tax.

“I don’t believe this is a soda-tax issue and I question whether someone has a different agenda,” Scaccetti said.

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