Erie Community College is launching a campaign to win the hearts and minds of students in Grand Island, the Town of Tonawanda and the other northern suburbs.
Administrators at ECC want to lure back young people who now cross the county line to take classes at Niagara County Community College.
This is not just an ECC issue; last year, Erie County taxpayers sent $1.8 million into NCCC's coffers for those crossover students.
"When students leave Erie County, this county pays a premium for that," ECC President William J. Mariani said.
In New York State, towns are assessed a "chargeback" for every resident who attends a community college in another county. In 2003, that fee for all towns of Erie County stood at $2.5 million, a 14.7 percent increase from 2002. And it is expected to rise again this year.
Now, ECC administrators want to enlist town and school district officials as allies in an effort to bring those Erie County residents to ECC.
And they are using the chargeback issue as a weapon in their battle over County Executive Joel A. Giambra's defeated-but-not-dead proposal to combine the three ECC campuses.
The college leaders intend to warn town officials that if a merger drives ECC students in their towns to NCCC or Genesee Community College, the towns would owe millions of dollars more in chargebacks.
NCCC President James P. Klyczek is not happy with the ECC position.
"I'm a little aggravated that they're going out with that kind of image and campaign to the towns," he said.
The Giambra administration said the college's post-merger projections of higher chargeback fees and lost students are wildly inaccurate.
"It's a number based on the results of what I believe is a very flawed survey intended to get a predetermined outcome," Deputy County Executive Carl J. Calabrese said.
Chargebacks are a little-noticed piece of state education law.
Each community college charges a different rate, based on a complicated formula that takes into account how much the college's own county spends to educate its residents.
In 2002, ECC attracted 544 students from other counties, and their hometowns paid the college $730,734 in chargebacks, according to a consultant's report. But Erie County sent 1,173 students to other community colleges -- 894 to NCCC alone -- at a cost of $2.1 million in chargebacks.
In 2003, that total chargeback figure rose to $2.5 million.
"We've got to get the message out to those municipalities that are adversely affected," trustee Paul Stasiak said during a recent ECC board meeting.
Erie County collects the chargeback fees from the towns as part of each town's county tax bill.
The 2002 chargeback fee for Grand Island was $301,191, and it rose again to $359,770 in 2003, according to a report by the Erie County comptroller's office.
"That's a pretty big-ticket item," said Grand Island Supervisor Peter A. McMahon, who wants to know why the towns, not the students, pay the extra fee to the community college.
The Village of Kenmore and the Town of Tonawanda owe a total of $383,852 for 2002 chargebacks and $527,169 for 2003 chargebacks, an increase of 37.3 percent. Amherst and Williamsville pay the next-highest charge, $420,988 for 2003.
ECC wants town or school officials to tell students and their families that a decision to attend NCCC means higher taxes.
NCCC's campus in Sanborn is closer than the ECC North Campus in Amherst to students from Grand Island, the Town of Tonawanda and northern Amherst.
The NCCC president said that his school does not go out of its way to recruit in Erie County but that it does advertise and attend college fairs there.
ECC is bringing Giambra's consolidation proposal into the chargeback fight.
College officials are using the results of a student survey they conducted over the summer to project how high chargebacks would rise if the North and South campuses were shut down.
Sixty-six percent of current students surveyed said they would leave ECC if the three campuses are merged downtown.
"If 60-some percent of your students say they don't want to attend a campus in the City of Buffalo," Mariani said, "you have to pay attention to them."
County officials think that some of the students who currently leave Erie County for NCCC or Genesee Community College might look favorably on a merged downtown campus.
"We think we'd get a large percentage of them back," Calabrese said.