The full extent of Erie Community College’s failed leadership and the county’s role in contributing to two straight years of $300 tuition increases by falling short on its subsidy may have to await the first state audit of ECC in 20 years which is due to be released some time in the near future.
State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli’s audit of ECC began last spring and state officials said at the time they expected it would probably be released in June. Well, June has come and gone and a spokesman for the comptroller’s office said last month the final report probably won’t be available until at least August.
Meanwhile, we reported two weeks ago that ECC’s vice president for legal affairs, Kristin Klein Wheaton, who according to most sources is the day-to-day “boss” at ECC, was trying to maintain firm control over contact with state auditors by ECC staff, requiring that all contacts be documented and saved in a special folder.
Some are asking if Wheaton’s oversight has hampered state auditors in completing their work as the original timing of the release of the audit has now been extended for at least two months.
On paper anyway, Jack Quinn is the president of ECC at $192,500 even though he tried very hard in 2013 to take over as president and chief executive officer of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership, a job that was becoming vacant because of the departure of Andrew Rudnick. But Quinn lost out and withdrew before his bid became public, signing a new deal to stay at ECC.
Quinn, a former congressman and Washington lobbyist, took over as ECC president in 2008 and brought in Wheaton in 2011 to handle legal affairs, but her role has expanded as she handles the day-to-day affairs of the college for Quinn who travels extensively to fulfill his outside business obligations.
In her role as Quinn’s loyal aide, it is hardly surprising that she reportedly took a tough stand with state auditors, demanding to know what and who they were talking to at all times, and requiring senior ECC staff to document all contacts with state auditors for her review.
Based on our extensive review of available records at the college, we suspect that state auditors are taking a close look at all of the college’s expenses, including those racked up by Quinn who until this year had a ECC-paid membership to the prestigious Buffalo Club and an extensive travel account which he still maintains. Quinn also reportedly had three auto accidents during the last six years while serving as president.
Some county lawmakers signaled last week—in passing the college budget by an 8 to 3 vote-- that recurring tuition hikes is not the way to run ECC and lawmakers are expected to take a close look at County Executive Mark Poloncarz’s next budget in the fall to see if he recommends a substantial increase in the college subsidy which currently is only about 15.6 percent of the college’s budget when it should be closer to 30 percent under the state formula.
For his part, Poloncarz has nothing to say. County Lawmakers, led by Republican Kevin Hardwick, are pushing for a long term plan to resuscitate ECC in the face of declining enrollment and other problems that have led to severe tuition increases for students to keep the school afloat. How much money could be released from the bloated ECC operating budget to help students has not been tested. That push could come sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, at least over the summer, many folks interested in the college’s future will be awaiting the results of the DiNapoli audit on what’s going on at ECC that could help in identifying problem areas that need to be addressed. As everyone waits, ECC will continue to try and raise the last few million dollars it needs to meet its $7.5 million share of the cost of the new $30 million STEM building at the north campus, a project that Poloncarz touted earlier this year in tapping a contractor for the job.
For the record, Kideney Architects, which won the Poloncarz bidding contest for the STEM building, had been rejected by Poloncarz when he was county comptroller. All you will get out of Poloncarz about his change of heart is a terse statement, his response to most issues that don’t involve snowstorms.