There may be plenty of blame to go around, but Erie Community College is in serious financial trouble and while no final decision has been made yet, the school's Board of Trustees is likely to boost tuition again by $300 for the coming year to deal with the growing budget crisis.
ECC, down to about 12,000 full time students as enrollment has steadily declined, has been forced to raise tuition and use its fund balance to close growing budget deficits in recent years and more of the same is coming this year.
For the first time in seven years county government is increasing its subsidy to the ECC, an increase County Executive Mark Poloncarz touted last week in responding to our questions about the college's financial troubles which has prompted consideration of emergency measures by the ECC administration and board to deal with the crisis.
But ECC Board Chairman Steve Boyd says the county subsidy of $17,429,317 did not change for seven years until Poloncarz announced the increase for the coming year which amounts to $125,000 which Boyd said "is not much of an increase," noting "ECC has had to use reserves and students have had to pay the freight" to keep the college going for some time.
In other words, through the first three years of the Poloncarz term and four years with Chris Collins as county executive, ECC has received the same subsidy even as the cost of business keeps going up. The last increase to ECC was under Joel Giambra.
"Somebody's got to pay that difference," said Boyd of the subsidy which in the coming year amounts to about 15.5 percent of the school's budget when the county subsidy should be at 26.7 percent under an agreement involving the state.
"It has been a long seven years," said Boyd, "and we hope this breaks the logjam and we're certainly glad to see it. But it is not much of an increase,"
Another financial drain on the college is the agreement reached during the Collins administration to pick up half of the county's $15 million share to pay for the $30million STEM science building for the Amherst campus, with the state picking up the other half.
"We agreed to it [back then] and we've been raising money for STEM because the county changed the way it does business," said Boyd. "We agreed to it and we can't use fund balance for that." Just where and how ECC is raising the STEM money could be revealed in detail when the state completes an audit of the college that is currently under way but is at least several weeks from completion, according to a spokesman for the state comptroller. It is believed the college is far short of the$7.5 million needed for its STEM share. A contract for the new science building was awarded earlier this year by the Poloncarz administration to Kideney Architects of Buffalo which won the $1.9 million county deal despite not being the low bidder.
But let's go back for a moment to the college administration which has come under fire for several high-salaried hires, including a former aide to then Rep. Jack Quinn in Washington. We have filed FOIL (freedom of information) requests for records from ECC on travel, legal, and other expenses dating back to 2010 and expect to have those records shortly.
We have reported that a number of staffers and others at ECC have been critical of the leadership at the college, suggesting President Quinn has been too busy with his outside activities as a member of at least two national boards to give the college his full attention. Some have even gone so far as to characterize him as disengaged, leaving the day-to-day operation of the college to his assistant in charge of legal affairs, Kristin Klein Wheaton.
Quinn, who sources say quietly pursued the job as president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership in 2013, reportedly was bitterly disappointed that while he was one of the finalists for the position, which paid retiring CEO Andrew Rudnick $356,000, he lost out to Dottie Gallagher-Cohen.
After Gallagher-Cohen was selected by the Partnership, Quinn negotiated a new contract ($192,500) to stay as president of ECC but continues to travel extensively with his outside interests and reportedly earns $140,000 from one of the national boards on which he serves.
Last month, Quinn sent a memorandum to his ECC colleagues, warning that the college would be taking emergency steps to reduce costs in the face of budget uncertainties that include a current year deficit of $1.2 million and a projected deficit of $7.8 million next year.
The college's growing budget problems could well become a key issue in the race for Erie County executive this year between Poloncarz and Amherst Assemblyman Raymond Walter (see story elsewhere in this publication).