The University at Albany is under an unprecedented financial squeeze. Entire programs in foreign languages are being eliminated due to budget cuts, and 160 job losses are looming.

Students are protesting, and lawmakers are railing against what they say are ever-larger classes and potential tuition hikes.

Amid this, however, a group of 970 UAlbany staffers last month shared $1.2 million in “discretionary raises,” on top of the 4 percent base pay increases they received last July.

The discretionary raises amount to 1 percent of payroll for employees represented by United University Professions, the union representing professors and others.

“It’s totally at the discretion of the administration, and it goes to faculty members whose performance is above and beyond the norm, those who have accepted additional responsibility,” UUP spokesman Don Feldstein said.

The bonuses ranged from $100 to nearly $12,000, according to SUNY data.

Employees can nominate themselves, but each campus president must sign off on the payments, which are typically paid in December.

“This is part of the contract,” UAlbany spokesman Karl Luntta said.

None of those contacted by the Times Union, other than those directly involved in SUNY, were aware of the discretionary raise program.

When told, some wondered about the future of the raises, while others suggest they are emblematic of how New York state has gotten into financial trouble. Public employee contracts often include arcane or little-publicized sweeteners in addition to the standard annual raises, which increases the cost of government.

“It underscores the problem,” said E.J. McMahon, director of the Empire Center for Public Policy, a fiscally conservative group that critiques state spending.

“SUNY had to give a bunch of raises in July … then a few months later the university is in a ‘holy cow’ moment. ‘We have no money, we have to cut.’ ” McMahon said, referring to news last fall that programs would have to be eliminated. ”It’s a microcosm of the state.”

These aren’t the only type of little-publicized raises given out at SUNY.

Last September three of SUNY’s central administration’s top officers got $30,000 raises and two of them, John J. O’Connor and David Lavallee, also got monthly housing allowances of $3,250 and $5,000, respectively.

After the pay raises were reported in the Times Union, an outcry from legislators ensued and SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher later rescinded the housing allowances.

The UUP bonuses are far smaller. Pay for those on the campuses varies widely from entry level salaries to six-figure salaries — depending an employee’s on job responsibilities, field and education level.

Lawmakers, who typically get a lot of support from UUP and its affiliate, New York State United Teachers, offered little criticism of the bonuses.

“I don’t know the specifics so it’s hard to comment but I do know that class sizes have increased and that the lack of additional faculty has increased the workload across the university,” said Assemblywoman Deborah Glick, D-Manhattan, who chairs the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee.

“If you’re not going to hire another person it may not be inappropriate that the people who are having their workload increased by some percentage get a little more compensation,” she added.

Sen. Kenneth LaValle, R-Selden, who chairs the Senate’s higher education committee, noted past practices regarding raises and bonuses at SUNY are likely to be revisited, given the cuts that Gov. Andrew Cuomo may offer in his budget proposal next month.

Adding to the uncertainty is Cuomo’s call for state employees to take a temporary pay freeze.

“I’ve said repeatedly and I’ve said it today, that we’re going to establish new paradigms,” said LaValle. “These are difficult times, different times.”

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The Empire Center is an independent, non-partisan, non-profit think tank located in Albany, New York. Our mission is to make New York a better place to live and work by promoting public policy reforms grounded in free-market principles, personal responsibility, and the ideals of effective and accountable government.

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