We have been reporting for the past several weeks on the deteriorating financial conditions at Erie Community College, and as we reported in last week's editions a second straight $300 tuition hike is looming for students in the coming year under the budget advanced by the board of trustees by a vote of 7 to 1 and sent to the county executive and the county legislature.
We asked for comment on the ECC budget plan from County Executive Mark Poloncarz but his office did not respond. Perhaps the ECC financial crisis is not something Poloncarz wants to talk about in an election year since local and state lawmakers will eventually have to pony up taxpayer money to deal with what is a very serious shortfall that is forcing students to carry more than 50 percent of the school's budget instead of the 33 percent called for in the community college formula with the rest split between the state and the county.
ECC President Jack Quinn, who is paid $192,500 by the three-campus community college, blamed the tuition hike and the financial crisis on declining enrollment, telling the Buffalo News "this was a hard decision for our trustees and our senior staff." However, as we have reported, many see Quinn as part of problem given his extensive outside interests including a reported $140,000 gig with California-based Kaiser Aluminum, and what sources say is his disengagement from the day-to-day operations of ECC after losing out in 2013 on a secret bid to head the Buffalo Niagara Partnership.
The college's failing financial grades has finally drawn the attention of the area's major daily newspaper, the Buffalo News, which ran a lead editorial on Monday (May 11) calling the college's latest tuition increase "a troubling sign of its precarious financial condition."
The editorial said the funding increase won't come close to ending ECC's fiscal problems, "meaning the college will have to look at fundamental shifts in its operations."
We can only hope all the involved parties are paying attention to the warning signs that ECC needs more county assistance and perhaps a leadership makeover to get back on track. The college is continuing to dip into its reserves to balance its growing budget deficits and will soon fall below the mark required to maintain its Middle States accreditation.
We filed a Freedom of Information Request (FOIL) for expense records from ECC a few weeks ago, and this week we received a response. ECC was gracious enough to grant us a one-time waiver of the $554.07 fee for assembling the records we requested which the college said took 55 hours to compile.
While the FOIL provided us with three pages of expense figures, which we will report on later, it was perhaps what wasn't in the response that is most interesting, and it has to do with Quinn's outside activities which we've previously reported on extensively. Tracey Cleveland, director of Human Resources and the school's FOIL officer, wrote the following on Quinn's outside schedule as part of the school's response:
"We are unable to provide the information regarding the salaries of any paid Board memberships that President Quinn serves on. This is not information related to the operation of ECC and thus we do not have records of his salaries. Additionally, we do not have records of when President Quinn is traveling for these obligations. President Quinn uses his vacation accruals to fulfill his paid board membership obligations but ECC does not keep records of President Quinn or any employee's activities when they are out of the office on vacation." One can only wonder how much vacation 'Quinn gets to fulfill his outside obligations and who runs the college when he is out of town.
The response did say that Quinn was in three car accidents since 2010 but that none involved other vehicles and all three were reported to the insurance carrier.
Soon after Quinn became president of ECC in 2008, the college paid a membership for him to the prestigious Buffalo Club where the monthly dues ranged from a low of $305 in 2010 to a high of $374 this year before the membership was suspended in March.
But the problems at the college are certainly more than Quinn's busy schedule. The county subsidy has been flat since the Giambra Administration seven years ago and falls far short of what the county should be providing.
Quinn and ECC Board President Steve Boyd had a short meeting with county lawmakers last Friday, mostly about a new computer technology that ECC would like to purchase which sources say could cost anywhere from $4 million to $8 million. There was no specific ask from the college to lawmakers who are clearly concerned about ECC's problems, with some privately wondering why the college hasn't come forward with a request for more assistance to face the growing financial crisis.
Later this month, college officials will go before the legislature for a hearing on the budget which eventually needs approval from the legislature, county executive, and state. Poloncarz is not weighing in yet and lawmakers are equally cautious. The question is, where will the money come from to save ECC?