Erie County taxpayers will pay $3.1 million this year to help fund community colleges in neighboring counties.
While it may seem an odd expense, millions of dollars are exchanged each year among New York State counties, which are assessed a "chargeback" for every resident who attends a community college in another county.
Erie County's tab, though, has grown by nearly $1 million, or 43 percent, from $2.2 million four years ago, according to a recent memo to the Erie Community College board of trustees.
Nearly three-quarters of those county payments are going to Niagara County Community College, because some residents from northern Erie County -- largely from the Town of Tonawanda, Amherst and Grand Island -- are taking advantage of their proximity to the Sanborn campus, interim ECC President William D. Reuter said.
The Erie County comptroller's office, which monitors chargebacks, also has noticed interest in on-line courses offered at other community colleges, said Gregory G. Gach, deputy comptroller.
ECC has experimented with offering some courses in classroom space in Grand Island and the Town of Tonawanda as a more convenient option for those residents. College officials also had looked at leasing classroom space along the county border in Amherst, an issue they may want to revisit this year considering the rising chargebacks, Reuter said.
"Does it make sense to have all of these sites? Probably not," Reuter said. "But doing this probably would save taxpayers significant dollars."
Each of the state's 30 community colleges charge back a different rate, based on a complex formula that takes into account how much the college's own county contributes to the institution.
Erie County actually has one of the lowest rates in the state, so while it will pay out $3.1 million this year, ECC expects to charge other community colleges $850,000, according to the county comptroller's office.
Erie County pays those charges from the other community colleges, but eventually recoups that money from the local towns.
Town of Tonawanda residents, for example, will pay the most this year -- $625,979 -- based on the number of town residents attending other community colleges.