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Cuomo should push for new STEM facility on ECC city campus

When Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo gives an inaugural address at the Buffalo History Museum on Thursday, he’ll no doubt again laud the state’s role in the Medical Campus, RiverBend, Pegulaville and other parts of the urban core’s revival.

But there’s one more thing the governor could push in the new year to continue that momentum: A new STEM facility for Erie Community College’s downtown campus, and a change in state “chargeback” laws to help make that happen.

Joel Giambra’s concept of regionalism wasn’t always the most visionary when he was Erie County executive, but this time he’s onto something. Giambra is a key player in the lawsuit trying to slow ECC’s plan to build a $30 million science, technology, engineering and math facility in Amherst – far from the downtown high-tech hub the state has poured millions into creating.

A big driver in ECC’s decision is the fact that state law compels Erie to pay other counties when its residents attend community colleges elsewhere, a chargeback tab that totaled $5.4 million last school year. Almost two-thirds of that flows north, for students attending Niagara County Community College – hence the emphasis on enhancing ECC’s North Campus to retain those students.

But a better solution would be taking chargeback money out of the equation, something that’s not as farfetched as it might seem because Erie is not the only county affected.

In the past couple of years, Suffolk, Nassau and Rockland counties have had budget skirmishes over chargebacks for students earning higher degrees at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. The Senate, in fact, voted to have the state assume that burden.

But there’s no reason to stop there. The ECC dilemma illustrates the folly of the whole chargeback system.

Giambra said one option being talked about – and which makes sense – would allow chargebacks only if the desired courses weren’t available locally.

ECC President Jack Quinn isn’t optimistic about reform because some community colleges elsewhere benefit from the current system. Given that, he said, ECC has no choice but to make the North Campus more competitive.

But with a governor so focused on rebuilding Buffalo, ECC shouldn’t give up so quickly. It should be pushing for chargeback changes instead of building in Amherst, which many city kids can’t get to. It’s a matter of economic justice because if they can’t get to the classes, they won’t be ready for the high-tech jobs being created in their community.

ECC’s lawyers call the suit “frivolous” and want it dismissed Jan. 8 in State Supreme Court. But challenging the project because a full environmental assessment – including transportation issues – wasn’t done would give the community time to come to its senses. There is nothing frivolous about that.

If chargebacks were taken off the table, does anybody really think that – given all of the high-tech investment in and around downtown – the best place for a new STEM school is Amherst?

We should learn from past experiences like building a stadium in Orchard Park or a state university campus in Amherst.

With all of his focus on reviving Buffalo, Cuomo should push to reform chargebacks before we make another dumb decision – one that will be looked on 30 years from now the same way we look back on mistakes made by a prior generation of “leaders.”