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Poloncarz warns about Erie Community College financial peril

Erie Community College officials must do more to address systemic financial problems before they raise tuition again or ask county taxpayers for more money, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said Wednesday.

Poloncarz warned that the college is on an unsustainable path, much like Erie County itself before the “red/green” budget crisis that led to a state-appointed control board for the county, closed parks and libraries and the layoffs of 1,200 county employees.

“ECC is basically a year out from where the county was in 2004,” Poloncarz said. “They’ve used one-shots to balance their budgets, and there’s some significant issues that need to be addressed.”

College officials are now wrestling with how to overcome a $7.5 million hole in ECC’s $110 million operating budget for 2016-17.

Poloncarz cautioned college officials against trying to increase tuition for the third consecutive year.

“I’ve expressed to (ECC President Jack F. Quinn) that they need to fix the systemic issues on the financial end without putting it on the backs of students,” Poloncarz said. “ECC has reached a critical point. It has to make the difficult decisions to make a better, stronger campus.”

The college’s board of trustees met in a work session with administrators for several hours this week to discuss their options. They will gather again Thursday for their regular monthly meeting. While the April meeting typically is when the trustees vote on a budget, they’re expected to need more time this year and call for an additional meeting prior to the May 10 deadline for submitting a budget proposal to Poloncarz.

Among the issues being discussed:

• A tuition increase of 3 percent, or $138 per student, would raise nearly $1.3 million in additional revenue. But trustees already increased tuition by $300 in 2015-16 and in 2014-15, making ECC the third-most-expensive community college in the state. Some of them are loath to do it again, and they worry that Poloncarz and the County Legislature, which must approve the college’s budget, wouldn’t allow a tuition increase, anyway. But “some kind of tuition increase has to be part of the formula that solves it for this year,” Quinn said. “This is the very best we can do. We need a small, tiny tuition increase to cobble this together.”

• The college could dip into its $8.7 million fund balance – basically, its savings account – but it has been doing that for years, and some trustees worry that ECC will need that money to implement sweeping changes that propel the college into the future. The accrediting body for ECC also requires that the college keep aside at least 5 percent of its overall operating budget in reserves, and dipping into the fund balance by $1 million would reduce it to $7.7 million, roughly 7 percent of the total budget.

• Eliminating 40 vacant positions at the college would save about $1.7 million, while chopping 53 positions would save $2.3 million, without laying off any employees. But some college officials and trustees worry that getting rid of so many vacant lines could potentially hamstring the college from being able to make strategic hires that would help grow enrollment and improve efficiency. If enrollment continued to drop next year, “we’re not going to be looking at vacancies to delete, we’re going to be looking at potential layoffs,” said ECC Chief Financial Officer William D. Reuter. Getting rid of some filled posts now, for strategic reasons, doesn’t necessarily make things easier, though. The college’s contracts with unions allow for employees with seniority who lose their jobs to bump less senior staff out of their jobs, as long as they meet minimum requirements for the post. Thus, officials worry that they could end up losing newer staff who were hired to improve college operations.

• Reuter figures that the college could reduce its contractual services expenses by $670,000.

• College officials also are discussing the prospect of increasing the technology fee by $3 per credit hour, which would raise about $825,000 in extra revenue. The college could move into general operations the $450,000 of rental income that had been set aside in past years for the college’s $7.5 million share of a new $30 million academic building slated to be built on ECC’s North Campus in Amherst. So far, the college has saved or raised about $5.3 million for the project, which is scheduled to break ground this spring. The county has agreed to include the remainder of the college’s share in a county bond issue for capital projects, with the stipulation that other ECC projects would not be eligible for county capital funding in 2016-17.

“We are doing a lot, as best as we can, to help them,” Poloncarz said, “but I’m not going to give them a blank check.”

email: jtokasz@buffnews.com