ECC Financial Crisis Could Trigger Political Battle

by Tony Farina

There are growing signs that Erie Community College’s fiscal crisis may get worse in the near future and could turn into a political struggle as college officials seek to close a $7.5 million budget gap without putting most of the burden on students who have been hit with $300 tuition hikes each of the last two years.

Stated simply, according to knowledgeable sources, the college may need more money from the county to stay afloat but County Executive Mark Poloncarz has warned he’s not about to give ECC a blank check (i.e. more money) even though the county subsidy is currently about 16 percent of the ECC budget when the community college aid formula says it should be at 26.7 percent of budget.  State aid is also way below the funding formula, meaning the state and county are not living up to their responsibility to help sustain this valuable institution and the college is running out of answers.

But nonetheless Poloncarz may hold a position of strength in what looks like the coming fight after a recent state audit found lax oversight of fiscal policies at ECC under President Jack Quinn, especially in the way his management team was awarded increases and bonuses without board approval even as the college was hiking tuition and raiding reserves to deal with the ongoing shortfalls caused in part by declining enrollment. 

The ECC Board will hold a special meeting today (May 5) called by Chairman Steve Boyd to try and deal with the 2016-2017 budget deficit as it prepares to finalize the numbers by next Thursday.  But no matter how hard they try to plug the gap, it could end up with a need for more aid from the county in order to make ends meet.  And that’s where the political battle could heat up as the college is nearing the breaking point and no amount of budget maneuvering at this late stage is likely to stem the slide without additional aid, and that will put political pressure on the politicians.

Sources close to the budget discussions say a proposed tuition increase of between $130 and $140 is likely to be included in the plan–down from earlier projections of another $300 increase—as well as another dip into the reserves of close to $2 million.  In addition, the budget plan is expected to cut at least 40 vacant paying jobs but no layoffs are likely to part of the plan submitted to the county executive and the legislature.

Sources continue to point out that even as enrollment has declined by at least 3,000 since Quinn became president in 2008 his senior executive staff has more than doubled, growing from about a dozen at the start of Quinn’s presidency to more than 24 this year.

We have written numerous stories about how Quinn, who holds the highest paying local public job in the area at $192,500, has several outside positions that he maintains, some that pay quite handsomely, and many current and former employees have called into question the former congressman’s leadership. 

A full-scale review of the college’s current situation could well find that ECC no longer can operate three campuses, and things like the Burt Flickinger Athletic Center may be too much of a burden for ECC to maintain at about $400,000 a year.

As one observer noted, college officials and political leaders need to find a path to saving the college before it is too late, and the time may be at hand when elected officials must earn their keep and find a way to save this valuable local resource before the doors close.