After years of housing grousing, major changes are finally afoot for UTD?s campus apartments. Or, at least, for Phases 5-9.
Yes, UTD has ditched FirstWorthing as the management company for university-owned Phases 5-9. Other phases will remain with FirstWorthing, though (as a resident of B.F.E. ?er, Phase 2, I sympathize).
The management contract was up for renewal this summer, and for several months, a campus committee has been digging through new bids. Starting November 1, American Campus Communities (ACC) will take over operations of Phases 5-9, which will be renamed University Village. Both management companies will occupy separate sides of the current leasing office, and students wishing to live on campus will have to apply for housing separately to one or both of the management companies.
This is a big step in the right direction, and I applaud UTD for taking on the risk of something new and hopefully much better. Working with two management companies seems confusing and the transition will, no doubt, give the university a few headaches. Even so, there?s reason to believe that the competition will improve student housing overall.
For the first time ever, students have a choice on campus, and that choice pressures the two management companies to outperform each other. If one management company fails to meet students? expectations, students can move across the street instead of moving off campus.
Second, ACC is simply a better deal for UTD, both financially and in the quality of its services. The management companies take a cut from student rents, and ACC will leave more in UTD?s pockets than FirstWorthing did. As for service, we?re all familiar with FirstWorthing?s checkered past and that it only shaped up in 2005 after a firestorm of negative publicity. According to selection committee member Juliann Peterson, ACC has a good maintenance track record in other properties it manages. It was the only company with consistently positive reviews. ACC was not the cheapest bid, but it was more competitive than FirstWorthing?s. (UTD won?t tell me just how much more competitive, but I have filed an Open Records request which is pending as this article goes to press. FirstWorthing is petitioning the Texas Attorney General to require that UTD not release the documents to me.)
I still have unanswered questions, though. If it?s true that ACC is the better deal, why are Phases 1-4 still managed by FirstWorthing? Since the Utley Foundation, not UTD, owns these phases, it is the Foundation?s board of directors that decides which company manages them. The board is supposed to meet quarterly, but it has not met in over six months. VP of Student Affairs Darrelene Rachavong spoke with me over the phone; she suspects that the management contract will be discussed in the next meeting (whenever that is), but she?s not sure.
And if they do vote on a management contract, what can students hope for? Many Utley Foundation board members have connections with Bob Utley, FirstWorthing?s chairman, and his son, Steven Utley, who is president and CEO of FirstWorthing. It?s quite a family affair. In fact, Bob Utley?s wife, Ann, is the president of the Utley Foundation. I called her for information on this story. She knew exactly who I was (Hi, Ann!) but refused to speak with me over the phone.
There?s more. I was stunned to discover that another Utley board member is Russell T. Kelley, named by Texans for Public Justice as the number one lobbyist in the state in 2005, both in terms of the number and dollar value of his lobbying contracts. Another director is Texas State Senator Rodney G. Ellis who has received numerous campaign contributions from the Utley family.
Given that information, I anticipate we?ll have two management companies for quite some time. For Utley, Waterview is the business cash cow that keeps going and going.
But it shouldn?t be. It?s fine for Utley to make a normal profit off of managing the apartments, but the Foundation shouldn?t be used for that purpose. According to its own documents, the Foundation exists ?for the sole benefit of the University of Texas at Dallas,? and the directors should act in a way that is consistent with the university and the Foundation?s well being?not Bob Utley?s. UTD clearly believes ACC is the better management company, and I?d like the Foundation to at least consider an alternative to FirstWorthing. Under these circumstances, that is the only responsible thing to do.
*Addition: In an e-mail, Ann Utley told me the Foundation automatically renewed its contact with FirstWorthing. I thought it would at least come up for discussion in the next board meeting, but apparently not!
When I called Ann Utley, she would not speak to me over the phone. My questions to Ann and her e-mail response are below.
As we discussed on the phone, I have a few questions I'd like to ask you about the Utley Foundation. I know you wouldn't like to speak with me other the phone, but I appreciate your candid response to these questions. If you'd like to make a statement in addition to these questions, you're more than welcome to.
You?re probably aware that UTD has chosen American Campus Communities to manage Phases 5-9. The members of the Campus Housing Advisory Committee (CHAC) have been told that ACC submitted a "better" bid, both financially and in the quality of its management services. Given that, as the owner of Phases I-IV, the Utley Foundation stands in similar if not identical shoes to the University which owns Phases V- VIII, and the Foundation apparently exists for the sole benefit of UTD, why did the Foundation vote to keep FirstWorthing as its management company?
Your Forms 990 state that the directors spend 4 hours a year making decisions for the Utley Foundation. How long did the board spend deliberating over the decision to keep FirstWorthing as the manager of Phases I-IV? Despite well documented student complaints with the FirstWorthing company, what factors and issues led to the Foundation's decision?
What other discussion or consideration was there of alternative management companies?
Many students are surprised at the Foundation's decision. Some allege the Foundation is not acting in the best interest of students. They believe that, by choosing FirstWorthing, the Foundation is not acting for the "sole benefit of the University of Texas at Dallas" as it was created to. They say that the Foundation has a clear conflict of interest, your husband's financial interest, and that the Foundation is not primarily concerned for the University and its students. How do you respond to these allegations?
I'm interested in your family's relationship to other board members. Has Russell Kelley ever lobbied on behalf of FirstWorthing or any of your husband's companies? According to the Texas Ethics Commission, you and your husband have both contributed to Rodney Ellis' campaigns. Does that influence his vote as a director of the Utley Foundation? Have you or any of your family members ever invested in Albert Black's businesses?
Ann Utley?s Response:
Kimberley, here is my response to your e-mail:
As you know, The University of Texas - Dallas selected American Campus
Communities (ACC) to manage Phases 5 - 9. The foundation's contract for
Phases 1 - 4 was automatically renewed with FirstWorthing as the property management provider. FirstWorthing remains committed to providing the
best possible service to housing communities the company manages.
As part of our commitment, The Utley Foundation, as well as FirstWorthing, has made numerous changes in managing Phases 1 - 4, and students have responded positively. The Foundation will continue to not only make upgrades to Waterview Park, but also listen to feedback from the student
residents on continuous improvements. Our utmost priority is to provide
students with high-quality living and learning experiences.
On a personal note, as a UTD MBA graduate and mother of a UTD undergraduate
- I am committed to the success of UTD and its students. I hold the University in the highest regard, and only want what is best for the institution and its students.
Regarding contributions and support to various entities and initiatives, they are a matter of public record, including contributions made to the University of Texas - Dallas on behalf of the Utley family.