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Editorial: ECC, despite its precarious finances, squandered thousands on a PR firm

Considering the financial stress Erie Community College is experiencing, you would think that officials – even outgoing ones – would keep up at least the appearance of fiscal prudence. Tightfisted, miserly, penny-pinching come to mind.

Showing a complete disregard for those qualities, the college wasted $8,205 for an outside public relations firm to write a press release and plan communications strategy for the retirement announcement of President Jack F. Quinn Jr. in August. This even though the college has its own communications staff, presumably capable of writing an equally glowing two-page press release extolling Quinn.

Certainly, several thousand dollars is a drop in the bucket in ECC’s $108.5 million budget. But this is not the time to send the message that money doesn’t matter. The college struggled to close a $7.5 million budget gap, raising tuition yet again (up 3 percent to $4,733 for 2016-17) and spending reserves. The college is also cutting courses and staff as it is unable to stem declining enrollment.

The $8,205 figure for the outside flackery also raises suspicion. The total was conveniently below the $10,000 level that would have triggered a vote by the ECC board of trustees.

The spending might never have come to light except that Trustee Timothy C. Callan spotted it in the monthly expenses listed by the president’s office and criticized it as unnecessary and inappropriate. Callan, also the deputy budget director for Erie County, has not been shy about voicing his opinion when it comes to how the college has managed its finances.

Unfortunately, given the state of ECC’s finances, there is plenty to criticize.

Quinn and trustees have had their financial decisions scrutinized in the past. A state comptroller’s audit found senior executive staff received unauthorized raises and bonuses of more than $100,000 between 2012 and 2015, plus contractors were hired without seeking competitive bids and in some cases without written contracts.

While Quinn’s announcement that he would retire in June 2017 is an important story for ECC, it was a straightforward press release that didn’t require immense skill. Nearly half of it was a rehash of his resume, hardly something requiring crisis management.

Stephen Boyd, former chairman of the ECC board, said officials wanted outside help because inaccurate information had shown up in the past in blogs and weekly papers. Unless he is saying that college staff produced that inaccurate information and can no longer be trusted to make announcements, that is not sufficient reason to hire an outside consultant.

In his defense, Quinn said he also wanted the firm to consult on branding opportunities related to the groundbreaking for the college’s $30 million Science, Technology, Engineering and Math building in Amherst. Apparently no such help was available from the county or State University.

The firm also coached Quinn on how to answer questions related to his retirement, something the smooth-talking six-term congressman hardly needed.

There are instances in which seeking outside assistance is warranted. This was not one of them.

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