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ECC tuition, fees won't rise despite dwindling enrollment

Students at SUNY Erie Community College won't see any increase in tuition and fees next year, although the college continues to battle declining enrollment, according to the college's proposed budget.

The college is asking the county for $18,554,317 for 2019-20. The budget totals $105,921,279, a reduction from the current budget of $111,585,804, according to the documents provided by the college's trustees to the County Legislature as part of their annual funding request.

The Legislature will hold a public hearing on the budget proposal at 6 p.m. June 18 in the fourth-floor chambers of the Legislature in Old Erie County Hall, 92 Franklin St.

The budget, as well as a letter written by County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz about the proposal, can be viewed in advance in the Legislature offices or online.

In his letter to the Legislature introducing the budget, Poloncarz noted that the sum requested by the college matched the amount set aside for it in the 2019 Erie County budget. He also wrote that "due to the reasonableness of the plan," he recommended passage of the budget, with the caveat that the college "continue to make long term positive structural changes for greater institutional efficiencies."

The budget proposal reveals that the college plans to offer early retirement incentives to members of its two largest unions, which represent faculty and administrators. Both unions will start contract negotiations starting in the fall, one year before their contracts expire on Aug. 31, 2020.

"The takeaway here is that we need to provide an incentive to our qualified members to encourage their retirement," the document said. The budget requests a one-time $2 million retirement incentive, but provided no other details on how it would be distributed.

In his letter, Poloncarz wrote, "While SUNY Erie President Dan Hocoy and I have discussed the concept of an early retirement incentive for these two bargaining units, we have not agreed to the specific terms of the amount to be provided for this program. Therefore, while I remain open to discussion on this item, no agreement has been made regarding it at this time."

Student enrollment at ECC continued to decline in the past year, as it has every year since 2010, when 15,084 students were enrolled. In the fall of 2018, ECC had 10,538 students, 6,702 full-time and 3,836 part-time. In the spring of 2019, there were 10,337 students, 5,548 full-time and 4,789 part-time. The document predicted that the downward enrollment trend would continue into the 2019-2020 academic year.

In a March appearance before the Legislature, Hocoy said the decrease in enrollment at ECC was caused by low unemployment rates and a decline in high school graduates.

The college gets 50 percent of its funding from tuition and fees, which total $4,900 per year for full-time students.

This year, ECC was the sixth most expensive community college statewide, charging $222 more than the average community college rate. Only Nassau, Suffolk, Clinton, Orange and Tompkins Cortland community colleges were more expensive; 24 colleges were less expensive.

"It is anticipated that holding tuition and fees flat one more year will put SUNY Erie at the average rate for 2019/20," said the budget documents.

The state pays 29 percent of ECC's budget, with the county's contribution providing 18 percent.

On the expenditure side, personnel services cost 57 percent, while employee benefits are 28 percent. This 85 percent of the college's total spending is "trending a little high for the industry, but also expected due to the mix of declining enrollment and flat tuition and fees on total revenues generated," Hocoy wrote. Retiree health care costs 18 percent of the budget, while contractual expenditures cost another 14 percent.

In the budget, the college's board of trustees emphasized the importance of implementing "effective solutions to attract and retain students as quickly as possible. These solutions must think broadly about what our target populations are and build the right mix of recruitment, retention, student/academic success programming, and educational infrastructure to achieve these goals. We must also pursue the right mix of funding sources to ensure long-term sustainability."

The budget also included a 2020 capital budget request asking for some $13.5 million for every year until 2025 for collegewide improvements and renovations to campus buildings. The work described includes roofs, doors, windows, masonry, mechanical, electrical and plumbing repairs and upgrades, as well as making some areas handicapped-accessible.

In his letter, Poloncarz wrote that ECC has typically received some $3 million of county construction project bonding annually, and that while the request will be considered, "the administration does not support increasing the amount the county borrows on behalf of SUNY Erie from $3 million to $13.5 million."

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