Students who thought they used meal plan points at Mick’s Restaurant last semester may face holds on their records until they foot unpaid bills.
Mick’s erringly allowed students without GWorld debit accounts to use “meal plan points” to pay for purchases. Incorrectly charged transactions caught up with students this week when the GWorld card office notified students they must pay for the meals or risk incurring a financial hold on their accounts.
A letter from GWorld Card Program Manager Michelle Neyers informed students of the snafu and asked them to pay their balance with cash, check or a credit card at the GWorld card office before spring break.
If students owing money have opened a debit account since the purchases were made, the University will withdraw the money directly from the account.
Neyers’ letter said, however, the balance will not be subtracted from students’ meal plan points.
As part of the meal plan, points are governed by strict regulations regarding their use and tax status, making them invalid at off-campus establishments, according to Neyers’ letter.
But GW Associate Vice President for Business Affairs Al Ingle said Wednesday the University is exploring the possibility of withdrawing the balance from students’ meal plan points – a one-time exception to GW’s normal policy, which prohibits meal plan points from being used for off-campus purchases.
The glitch is another in the string of roadblocks the GWorld card program has hit since its implementation in August. The proposed all-in-one card program is about to enter Phase II, which will allow students to pay for laundry and campus vending machines with the card.
But as Phase II begins, Phase I details still are being ironed out. The program was slated already to allow students use of the card at as many as three off-campus restaurants. Currently, only Hunan Peking is online.
The “one card” offers students two-fold eating options. First, it can link students to traditional, tax-free meal plan combinations of meals-per-week and on-campus “points.”
Second, some students take advantage of debit accounts to avoid carrying cash for purchases at on- and off-campus dining facilities and laundry and vending machines. Purchases through these accounts are taxed.
Administrators have said that when all is said and done, students will use the debit accounts for parking services, GW Bookstore purchases and merchandise at Foggy Bottom shops.
Flaws in the system that monitors students’ purchases off campus made it possible for Mick’s to bill students without debit accounts, Ingle said.
The company that owned Mick’s until late December is seeking reimbursement from GW for money it lost when students without debit accounts signed off on purchases, Ingle said.
“It can’t be something that the University pays for because we don’t have the money at this time,” Ingle said.
Ingle said the exact amount of money at issue cannot be determined until the University conducts a detailed audit of the transactions, but he estimated about 500 to 600 transactions were made at anywhere from $10 to $60 each.
“While this is a difficult situation, it’s sad that students are in the middle,” Ingle said. “I think this is fundamentally a problem related to the off-campus partner – it’s a procedural problem with Mick’s.”
Ingle said the records of transactions made at Mick’s indicate the restaurant’s employees were “overwhelmed with the process.” He said some transactions were entered more than once, since servers might have incorrectly recorded the charge the first time.
Morton’s of Chicago, the company that owned Mick’s until this winter, has agreed to give the University time to work things out before it collects its compensation, Ingle said.
“Morton’s has agreed not to press us unreasonably or inappropriately,” Ingle said.
But according to students who received the letter, time is not the major issue. Frustration stems from the fact they thought they were paying for the meals when they ate them, students have said.
“When we went (to Mick’s), I asked the waitress, `Can I use points here?’ And she said `yes,’ ” said sophomore Tara McDonough. “If an agent of the company told me I could use them, why should I think otherwise?”
McDonough said she was asked to sign a receipt, signaling to her that the transaction was valid.
Now, she and other students are being asked to pay for the purchases with a credit card, a check or cash, not the meal points they originally thought they were spending.
“Everyone’s upset because we all thought we were paying when we signed the receipt,” McDonough said. “No one understands why the money can’t be transferred from points. Money is money – I don’t understand why it won’t work.”
Ingle said it is University policy “not to co-mingle the meal points and debit accounts.”
“It’s not at this point possible to move the money from points to pay for the purchases at off-campus vendors,” he said Tuesday.
But Ingle said Wednesday the University could allow a one-time exception to its policy, allowing meal plan points to be used to pay the balance.
Ingle said the exception could be approved in the next few days pending authorization by the comptroller’s office and the University treasurer.
However, students who opened debit accounts this spring will have the money they owe automatically removed from the new account.
Steven Mandelbaum, the Student Association’s vice president for financial affairs, said he is concerned the issue may set a precedent in which the University withdraws funds from students’ debit accounts to cover other fees owed to GW.
“There are two issues here. One, students are being charged for something five and a half months later. And two, how safe is the money in the debit account?” Mandelbaum said. “If I owe $10 on my tuition payment, what’s to say they won’t just take that money out of my debit account?”
Ingle said the University is concerned about conveying details of the situation to students.
“We thought it was important to communicate to the students what was going on,” Ingle said.
But Gayle Adler, director of the SA’s Dining Services Commission, said the University is “not communicating with students” and has “chosen not to deal with this in the calmest way possible.”
Adler said Neyers told the DSC last semester Mick’s was responsible for the snafu and that no charges would be incurred on students.
At a meeting with the commission Friday, Neyers said nothing about the letter or the decision to bill students for the mischarged meals, Adler said.
“I think it was done very unprofessionally,” Adler said. “The letter was not even on GW letterhead and it wasn’t signed (by Neyers).”
Adler was appointed by SA President Kuyomars “Q” Golparvar to advocate students’ dining services concerns. “I think the University should fight more on student’s behalf,” she said.
Adler added that GW could have insisted in its dealing with Morton’s that students not be required to pay for mischarged purchases.
Ingle explained that until recently Mick’s and the other off-campus eateries used a local computer to charge meals to students’ GWorld cards.
The computer recorded a cardholder’s name, identification number and the amount of the sale, but had no way of determining whether a student had a debit account or how much money was left in the account.
According to Mick’s contract with GW, restaurant employees were required to compare the transaction record to a master printout daily – or at least weekly – to verify that students charging meals had sufficient funds in a debit account to pay the bill.
However, Ingle said Mick’s did not verify the transactions as outlined in the contract.
“They told us they were too busy (to verify the transactions),” Ingle said.
But Ingle said a similar process at Hunan Peking and Subway did not cause problems.
When Mick’s was dropped from the GWorld program late last semester, GW was in the process of connecting the restaurant’s system to the University by modem so employees could immediately verify the funds in a student’s account when they swi
ped the card, Ingle said.
An ideal system would have featured a “filtered line” connecting a restaurant and the University, but Ingle said Bell Atlantic currently has a waiting list for filtered line connections.
Ingle said the four potential off-campus partners that currently are in talks with the University immediately will be hooked up through the modem system when they enter the program.
Hunan Peking currently is connected to the University by modem.