We’ve been writing for the last several weeks about the financial problems and leadership issues at Erie Community College and it looks like somebody is finally taking notice.
Kevin Hardwick, the chairman of the Erie County Legislature’s Enrichment Committee, was among the first to speak out about the need to address the college’s long-term future in the midst of the current financial crisis caused in part by declining enrollment and inadequate county support.
And last week, three of Hardwick’s Republican colleagues on the Erie County Legislature voted against the ECC budget that included a second straight $300 tuition increase after first failing to win approval of an amendment that would have removed the tuition hike from the $110.9 million budget submitted by the ECC brain trust headed by President Jack Quinn who himself is under fire in many corners for what some characterize as his “disengaged” leadership.
Hardwick said in an email to this reporter that if the amendment to remove the tuition hike had passed, ECC “would have had a $3 million hole to fill and layoff notices would probably have gone out next week (this week)” as two months notice is required for most employees.
But Hardwick said the positive part was that “most legislators expressed support for increasing the county subsidy of ECC in next year’s county budget. Today was scary, but I think the long term outlook is a bit brighter now.” Many hope that Hardwick is right, but others inside the ECC bureaucracy believe removing the tuition hike from the budget plan might have forced the college brain trust to change the way they are doing business and find the money inside their budget, not on the backs of students. And it seems some lawmakers are coming around to that view.
Republican Joe Lorigo, the legislature’s majority leader, sponsored the amendment to remove the tuition hike and was joined by fellow Republicans Ed Rath III and Ted Morton in voting against the budget after the amendment failed to win approval. The final budget vote was 8 to 3.
In a statement, Lorigo said “I am extremely disappointed that a majority of the legislature voted to raise costs for students yet again. We can’t expect students to continue to carry the burden of ECC through annual tuition increases. Not only is ECC raising tuition by $300 again next year, ECC representatives have said they plan to propose additional tuition hikes for the next several years. This is all while student enrollment is steadily dropping. The reality is it’s time to have a discussion about priorities, and I believe investing in the education of our students should be high on that list.”
Lorigo added that the state and county have been shortchanging the college for years “and it’s time we did something about it. Community college should be as economical as possible, and this tuition increase is absurd.” Very strong words from the majority leader and a sign that some lawmakers are getting the message that ECC is in trouble and elected officials need to step up.
Rath added in a statement that “just as we can’t continue to raise taxes because of government’s spending decisions, we can’t raise tuition to fill a gap in ECC’s budget,” saying instead there is a need to focus on improvements and providing students a good education at a fair price.
Legislator Morton said he was disappointed to learn from ECC officials that future plans include tuition increases through 2021, saying the increases are a formula for disaster.
“I have met with several businesses in my district (Depew) that need a skilled workforce and are working with ECC to achieve this. It students can’t afford to attend ECC, these businesses won’t have the employees needed to succeed.”
Democratic legislator Peter Savage said that while the amendment to remove the tuition hike from the budget was admirable, he was concerned about the resulting $3 million budget hole in the ECC budget if that occurred and the money would be difficult to replace.
Other veteran observers believe taking away the tuition hike might have forced Quinn and his staff and the college board of trustees to find the money someplace else in their budget, and not force the students to carry the load. But for now, students will have to pay the freight and we’ll have to wait for the county executive’s budget plan due in the fall to see if he is going to find money to help the college, something more than the $125,000 subsidy increase he added this year. The county is funding the college at about 15.6 percent of the budget when the subsidy should be closer to 30 percent. Poloncarz rarely responds to questions, especially when it comes to sensitive issues like a failing public college on his watch.
Also, it is clear from informed sources that the college is still searching for about $3 million to cover ECC’s $7.5 million share of the $30 million STEM building project at the north campus. The winning contractor on the STEM project, as we reported several months ago, was selected by County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s team even though the firm, Kideney Architects of Buffalo, was not the low bidder. As comptroller in 2011, Poloncarz had questioned Kideney’s selection as improper but that changed earlier this year, the reasons which are not clear.
In addition to the $3 million it still must raise to meet the $7.5 million share for STEM, sources say ECC has not set aside any funds to furnish the new building.
If the county is sitting on a $100 million in fund balance, as Majority Leader Lorigo says, it may be time for Poloncarz and lawmakers to take a second look at the valuable resource that is ECC and find the money to bail out the failing college before it is too late.