Who's footing the bill for missing university property? - Cincinnati News, FOX19-WXIX TV

Who's footing the bill for missing university property?

Universities spend millions each year on items such as computers and iPads with your tax dollars, but do those items really remain on campus?

A FOX19 investigation reveals that many university-owned assets are leaving schools at an alarming rate, and you might be surprised to find out what's done about it.

In March, FOX19 sent a letter, a request under the Freedom of Information Act, to state funded colleges and universities in our area for a list of all missing assets. School officials sent back pages and pages of hundreds of missing or stolen items.

At the University of Cincinnati, dozens of laptops, computers, and keyboards were on the list, along with a $2,000 sculpture, and even $3,400 worth of Metro bus tokens.

In fact, between 2009 and 2010, UC officials claim that an average annual loss of $80,000 in missing or stolen property. And for those two years, more than $157,000 worth of stuff that tax payers footed the bill for is gone.

"Sometimes it's students," said UC Police Chief Eugene Ferrara. "We have 41,000 students, and we don't run background checks on them. It's like any other community. We get 50,000 people here every day. Some of them will take the opportunity to pick something up if it's not secure. Mostly, it's just people who just walk onto the campus. We're a target rich environment."

Some of those items are recovered, but most are not. Still, Chief Ferrara said they've actually cut that number in half in the last 13 years. He added that the crime is one of opportunity.

That's something police at Miami University know a good deal about.

Last year alone, more than $59,000 worth of University-owned property vanished.

"Obviously any kind of property stolen is a concern to us because it has a direct impact on the feeling of safety on campus," said Miami University Police Lt. Ben Spilman. "So whether it's personal property or institutional property, we try to recover as much of it as we can."

Lt. Spilman couldn't speak to how frequently officers recover property, but said sometimes suspects are students, sometimes they're staff members, but often the crooks are people not associated with the school.

"I think the University takes a lot of steps to try to identify its own property by marking it with indelible markings," said Lt. Spilman. "Tracking serial numbers and keeping good audits of the property that they own. The problem is that on a public university where people can come and go as they please, check out or borrow equipment, if it's not returned in a timely manner, it's sometimes difficult to identify a time frame during which it was stolen."

If you head south to Northern Kentucky University, you'll find the same issue.

NKU Police Chief Jason Willis said officers don't keep track of missing inventory from year to year or month to month, but rather look at reports on a case by case basis.

If they did, they'd find out that from 2006 through March of this year, a total of $157,000 worth of school property is gone. This includes more than $13,000 in cash or fraudulent credit card purchases, $3,600 worth of missing chrome Flush-o-meters, 40 missing laptops, and 18 missing camcorders.

In 2007, one room of items worth $34,776.82 is unaccounted for; a staff member told school police that she took inventory one day and realized she was missing the property.

The police report reveals that most of the items were somehow misplaced over the last two decades. The list of items include:

-a $3,400 dollar computer

-a $2,700 printer

-and a $900 antique coffee table

This report is not under investigation today.

"I imagine some of those items do have to be replaced," said Chief Willis. "I imagine some of the items that are missing are due to poor inventory control, things like that. They may actually be on campus somewhere. It's just a matter of finding where on campus they are. Maybe in a different classroom than they originally reported being in and things like that."

Even Tri-State community colleges aren't immune to the issue.

At Cincinnati State Technical and Community College, items are tagged and serial numbers recorded. Even with that system, between 2007 and 2010, more than $38,000 worth of computers, projectors, even cash were misplaced, misused, or stolen.

Still, local school leaders we spoke with stick by their numbers. We're told that in the grand scheme of things, the loss isn't that much.

Chief Ferrara added that reducing the number could actually cost taxpayers more.

"It's total impact on tuition or tax dollars is almost irrelevant," said Chief Ferrara."When you look at the University property of $80,000, it sounds like a lot of money, is a lot of money, but when you put it in context, the budget for the University is about a million dollars a year. So there's always loss. We have water damage to buildings. We'll have faucets that break. We'll have toilets that clog. When you put $80,000 to the billion, it's 8-1000th of one-percent of the budget."

And how do Tri-State schools stack up to other colleges and universities?

At the University of Kentucky, in the past three years, almost $3 million worth of University assets have disappeared.

Travel further east to Virginia State University, and records show the school has $2 million worth of assets unaccounted for the last couple of years.

And lastly, at Louisiana State University, between 2005 and 2008, more than 2,000 items are gone-- all worth more than $5.4 million.

 

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