Thursday, April 14, 2011

California Stem Cell Agency Plans a More Than 16 Percent Budget Boost

The California stem cell agency is proposing an $18.5 million operational budget for the coming fiscal year that will include a more than 12 percent increase in staff and reflect the rising costs of monitoring more than 400 grants and loans.

The agency did not disclose the size of the increase for the spending plan compared to actual spending projected through the end of the current fiscal year June 30. CIRM only offered a comparision to spending that was approved last June ($16 million). The proposed budget is up 16 percent from that figure. The agency, however, has been running behind the approved spending levels so the actual budget increase is likely to be substantially higher than 16 percent.

In documents prepared for a meeting Tuesday of the CIRM directors' Finance Subcommittee, the agency's staff briefly noted that a cash crunch could occur in the coming fiscal year if the state does not sell additional bonds, the only real source of funding for CIRM's $3 billion effort. A continued suspension of bond sales is likely this year because of the state's financial crisis.

The budget document said,
"If no new bonds are sold during FY 2011-12, expenditures could reach the 6% (legal, Prop. 71)cap by June 2012. However, plans are progressing to request authorization for new bond sales this year."
No further information was provided concerning the bond situation, although it is to be considered as a separate item at the meeting next week.

The budget document said CIRM is "well aware" and "sensitive" to California's fiscal crisis and said its spending plan is aimed at controlling spending.

The document said it reflects "continued increases in the programs, activities and overall workload at CIRM, and it mirrors changes in the number of fulltime employees, which is expected to grow to 56 from the target for FY2010-11 of 50 (an increase of 12%)."

With $1.2 billion committed out of $3 billion, CIRM cited a significant increase in workload, including a 47 percent hike in "payment transactions" for grants and loans from 663 to 975 and a 21 percent increase from 467 to 563 in scientific progress reports and "prior approval requests" for changes in awards.

Eight new positions are proposed, up from the current staff level of 48(a 17 percent increase). One is a "director of public communications" in the office of the chair of the agency. Two others are an information technology director and a special projects officer to help CIRM President Alan Trounson develop new initiatives and deal with biotech industry executives.

The largest budget category is for compensation, $10.3 million. The second largest category is outside contracting at $3.3 million. "Direct legal costs," many of which are contracted, are scheduled to hit $2.3 million. The agency is heavily reliant on outside contracting because of the former legal limit of 50 on the size of its staff. That limit was removed by legislation that went into effect at the beginning of the year.

The spending plan shows that CIRM is still wrestling with its critical grants management system after several years of work. It proposes spending $933,977 on the effort this year out of a total information technology budget of $1.3 million. It is not clear whether that figure includes the hiring of an information technology director, as proposed elsewhere in the spending plan.

The office of the chair, which includes both outgoing Chairman Robert Klein and co-vice chair Art Torres, is budgeted for $3.9 million. Again no comparision is available to estimated spending for this year, but the figure is up from the $3 million approved last June for the current year. Klein says he will leave his post this June. No successor has been chosen. The largest increases in Klein's budget appear to be in compensation (new hires) and outside contracting.

The Finance Subcommittee is expected to forward its recommendations on the budget to the full CIRM board at its meeting in early June.

The budget information from CIRM is coming much earlier than it has in the last several years, a significant improvement in an important aspect of the agency's openness and transparency. It also provides directors and the public with ample time to examine the proposal, raise questions and make suggestions for changes.

The public can take part in the meeting at locations in San Francisco (3), Pleasanton, Palo Alto, Irvine, La Jolla and Berkeley, Specific addresses can be found on the agenda.

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