By Joseph Spector
Albany Bureau Chief
ALBANY - The state's four university centers spent $12.5 million on travel expenses since January 2011, incurring some big bills on trips and meals mainly for its Division I sports teams.
Records reviewed by Gannett's Albany Bureau show that as SUNY Buffalo, Binghamton, Stony Brook and Albany continue their ascension into top-tier college athletics, it comes with a price.
The largest single tab was $30,460 to feed the SUNY Buffalo football team during its two-week training camp last year, according to the records from the state Comptroller's Office.
The food came from Old Man River, a burger joint in nearby Tonawanda, Erie County, and fed 150 players and staff, the college said.
"We provide meals to know that they are getting proper nutrients in their system after a long day in the middle of August," said Brian Wolff, a spokesman for the athletic department, in a written response.
In all, SUNY Buffalo spent nearly $5.2 million on travel expenses between January 2011 and May 2012, far surpassing the $2.9 million spent by Albany; the $2.6 million spent by Stony Brook; and the $1.9 million spent by Binghamton.
The meals and travel add up, and some critics said the spending needs to be better controlled as SUNY deals with growing expenses and implements a $300 per year tuition increase over the next five years.
State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli is undertaking a sweeping review of state travel, including the thousands of state-issued credit cards that many top state employees receive to use for travel and food.
"Our office closely monitors state expenditures to ensure taxpayer dollars are being used appropriately," said DiNapoli spokesman Jennifer Freeman.
"This spring our office launched an effort to look at travel expenses at nearly three dozen state entities to make certain expenses are appropriate and that agencies are watching travel costs."
SUNY officials defended the spending. The state decided to start to take its four SUNY universities into Division I sports in the mid-1990s, leading to the construction of new facilities and a more aggressive recruiting program.
An NCAA report in 2005 said costs of going to Division I outweigh the increase in revenue. But the move up can help with enrollment, campus pride and graduation rates, the report said.
SUNY officials said student fees are a major source of funding for athletic programs. Colleges can also share in the revenue from away games.
SUNY Albany said its yearly athletics budget is about $14 million, with 45 percent of the revenue coming from fees, 22 percent from tickets and advertising and the rest from the state.
"SUNY takes great pride in the ability of its student athletes to balance academic, social, and athletic experiences for a well-rounded college education," David Lavallee, SUNY executive vice chancellor and provost, said in a statement.
"Participation in Division 1 sports affords our students the opportunity to contend at high levels and, in many cases, nationally with peer institutions. Not only does this competition bolster a great sense of pride amongst our campuses, it also pushes student athletes to pursue excellence both on and off the field."
SUNY officials said employees and coaches follow strict protocols on the use of state-issued credit cards and have to provide receipts for their expenses. They can essentially only use the cards for meals, hotels and airfare for work-related activities, such as games and recruitment trips.
Tom Gaube, senior assistant director of admissions at SUNY Binghamton, billed the state $1,500 in March 2011 at The Green's Grill and Pub outside Boston.
Scott Nelson, the men's lacrosse coach at Binghamton, spent $616 at the Ri Ra Irish Pub in Burlington, Vt., on April 20, state records show. Kevin McKeon, an assistant coach with the team, spent another $100 on the trip at the same pub.
A school spokesman said alcohol cannot be purchased with the cards.
"These expenditures were for lodging, travel, meals, as well as recruiting and coaches association meetings," Ryan Yarosh, a spokesman for SUNY Binghamton, said in an email. "All charges for team meals include food and non-alcoholic beverages only."
SUNY Buffalo said its travel expenses are higher than the other university centers because they play in the Mid-American Conference, which spans much of the Midwest. The other state universities are in the America East Conference, which is more geographically compact, Wolff said.
"We are primarily a conference that travels everywhere by bus and at times that means we play multiple contests in one road trip keeping our teams on the road between three and five days," Wolff said.
He added that as the largest SUNY institution with 29,000 students and 8,000 employees, travel - including going overseas for its foreign programs - is necessary.
"This type of global presence takes a financial commitment from our university," Wolff said.
SUNY Buffalo was the only university in which employees used their state credit cards for cash advances -- $465,000 over the past year and a half, the records show.
Wolff said the college allows coaches to take out cash advances and provide athletes money for meals, which is allowed under their travel guidelines. The receipts of the meals need to be provided to the school's business office, he said. The allowance is based on whether its breakfast, lunch or dinner and what part of the country the trip is in, he said.
The largest cash advance was $14,459 in March for the meal allowances of the Buffalo rowing team on a trip to Tennessee for training during spring break. The trip also cost taxpayers $21,069 for the hotel stays of the 55-member team and staff during the nine-day trip, the school said.
Some SUNY students have protested cuts to their colleges' programs and the increase in tuition costs.
Sean Collins, a leader of the group New York Students Rising, which has held rallies at the state Capitol, said the travel expenditures sound excessive.
"It's just another example of broken priorities," Collins, a senior at SUNY Albany, said. "We invest in a new multi-sports complex at UAlbany and at the same time, five academic programs are being cut. The money is obviously there."
Karl Luntta, a SUNY Albany spokesman, defended the college's travel spending. Since January 2011, the college had seven flights that cost more than $10,000, including trips for the track team to travel to Puerto Rico for an indoor championship and the baseball team to compete at the University of Miami.
Some tabs were incurred closer to home. Juan Torres, the college's director of football operations, spent $1,940 and $1,500 on two restaurant bills in 2011 at an upscale restaurant, Provence, near the campus.
Luntta said the bills were "part of recruiting activities for prospective football scholar-athletes and staff." The school said about 50 people can sometimes attend a recruitment dinner, which usually includes about 15 potential prospects at a time.
Luntta said that SUNY Albany has cut more from its athletics than other programs, a cut of about 14 percent for the program over the past four years.
"During the past three years the University at Albany absorbed a more than $45 million reduction in state support," said in a statement. "While UAlbany believes that athletics is an integral part of the college experience, it was necessary to reduce its athletic budget at a rate greater than its academic programs."
Some state lawmakers said there needs to be better oversight of how SUNY spends its money.
"It's totally inappropriate when there is no money. And today certainly there is no money," said Assemblyman Joel Miller, R-Poughkeepsie. "There's no money from the taxpayer, there's no money from the economy, and there's no money for the students."