Cost of UC Merced graduation soars to $700,000

May 1, 2009 

UC Merced's commencement budget has ballooned from $100,000 to $700,000 after first lady Michelle Obama accepted the invitation to give the keynote address.

Campus leaders, busy simply planning the large-scale event that's only 15 days away, have yet to secure all funding streams, spokeswoman Tonya Luiz said Thursday.

The budget estimate represents the most costly situation, and organizers are pursuing ways to defray the bill.

"We have her first public address," Luiz said. "It's our obligation to make Merced look good."

Campus planners are trying to be as careful with cash and hope the bills won't be as high as projected. Nevertheless, they want the university to shine May 16 when Obama steps to the lectern to inspire the graduating class.

The city's downtown festival will cost about $30,000, which leaders believe will entirely be covered by sponsorships.

AT&T, the Educational Employees Credit Union and Kaiser Permanente have collectively committed to donate $80,000 to the university's ceremony, Luiz said. Even though it's Obama's first major speech since the election, lining up financial support from major companies has proved tough.

"It's the end of the fiscal year. There's not a whole lot of extra money in their budgets," she said.

Sponsors will get their logos on the JumboTrons and on the gift bags given to graduates. However, there won't be any one-on-one time with the first lady, she said.

The top cost is an estimated $300,000 for an audio/visual firm to broadcast the event on site and provide a live feed for media outlets.

"If the entire world has its eye on UC Merced, we want to make sure (the signal is) crystal clear and not crashing," Luiz added.

One hope is that a major television network will offer to handle that task.

University officials may approach the UC Office of the President to see if it's willing to help foot the bill.

Campus officials have been hammering out the logistics for their special guest. They ordered six 10-stall restroom trailers, which will probably cost about $15,000.

Security, which likely will be handled by officers from within the University of California system, is projected to be $90,000. Metal detectors, if needed, could cost up to $5,000.

While students' friends and family watch Obama, many local residents are expected to be downtown for the city's first Cap & Town festival. Televisions will be tuned to the speech.

The event was a long-term goal that got fast-tracked when Obama announced her visit.

The Bob Hart Square festival has a $30,000 budget, city spokesman Mike Conway said.

Merced leaders have already received commitments from two local banks to pay for the Cap & Town festival downtown.

Rabobank will donate $10,000 to the event. Westamerica will give $5,000 and send some of its employees as volunteers.

AMS.NET of Livermore has donated $5,000 in telecommunications equipment to get the live television feed downtown.

Sponsors will display their logos on banners and fliers. Top-tier sponsors will be recognized at a City Council meeting, Conway said.

Other businesses approached haven't yet made a decision, he said. The city is prepared to tap the Downtown Improvement District, a fund of special taxes downtown shops pay on their business license, if the event goes over budget.

No general fund money will go toward the festival, he noted. There'll be minimal overtime because anyone working on Saturday will take a different day off. The only exception may be public works employees who have to pick up trash after the celebration.

With the university's expansion plans given the green light, Luiz said it's likely a road along the commencement site will be paved. "We're looking at making long-term investments to the campus," she said. "All eyes are on Merced right now."

Reporter Scott Jason can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or sjason@mercedsun-star.com.