How Erie County taxpayers foot the bill for other county colleges
by Peter Soscia
Discussion over the price of college tuition is not a new subject. For years enraged graduates struggling the pay off their ever-increasing student loans have been calling for reform. There are however, some lesser known fees within the SUNY community college system that put a burden, not on the student, but the student’s community as a whole.
Enacted in the 1950s, New York State’s Community College Chargeback policy creates a fee for counties every time a resident attends a two-year school outside of their home county. Erie County taxpayers paid over $5.4 million to SUNY community colleges in 2013, for residents that attended a two-year school outside of Erie Community College (ECC). That number is 31 percent more than the amount Erie County contributes to ECC’s yearly operating budget. The theory behind the policy is to provide the same level of support to a community college that a sponsoring county is providing to its own residents attending the community college within their county.
According the ECC’s Chief Administrative and Financial Officer, William Reuter, Erie is one of the most affected counties by the current Chargeback Policy. “Unfortunately Erie is one of the few county that loses in the chargebacks. From a community college perspective, they love it, because they get the chargeback income, but when a student goes outside of the county the college is not the one paying out the cost. In our case Erie County and the taxpayers are the ones paying for it,” said Reuter. “Erie County is one of the few counties to relevy the fee to the individual municipality that a student comes from.” The most effected municipalities by the reallocation of chargebacks fees are Amherst/Williamsville with approximately $910,670 added on to property taxes, Tonawanda/Kenmore have $846,204 in additional taxes, and $835,124 for residents of Buffalo.
The calculation for a two-year institution’s chargeback rate is based on the amount of funds provided by an institution’s sponsoring county (Erie County is ECC’s sponsor), divided by the amount of county-resident students enrolled in full-time programs. Due to ECC’s high-rate of in-county students, compared to other community colleges, they see little reward from the policy with only a slightly over $800,000 coming in from the chargeback fees. “ECC has historically received one the lowest sponsor contribution for the residents served and has one of the highest resident full-time enrollments, thus driving one of the State’s lowest operating chargeback rates,” said Reuter. ECC’s 2014-15 chargeback rate of $1,580 per Full-Time-Enrollee is approximately 46 percent lower than the statewide average chargeback rate of $2,932 per Full-Time-Enrollee and is the fourth lowest in the entire state. “Historically every year between 92 percent and 94 percent of our students come from Erie County,” said Reuter. “Where at Niagara County Community College (NCCC,) enrollment has dwindled down to about 65 percent of students are Niagara County residents, because of that, their chargeback rate is much higher at roughly $3,000 per-student.”
While the majority of community collegea are in favor of the Chargeback Policy, that is not the case for Reuter and the ECC administration. “No community college wants a change in the policy because they get all the money with none of the expense. Even though ECC gets about $800,000/yearly from the Chargeback Policy, I’m looking at it from a taxpayer perspective. It makes no sense for an Erie County resident to be subsidizing operations at NCCC, GCC, or other community colleges outside of their county,” said Reuter. “Ideally we would get rid of the policy all together, but a small step that would go a long way is reforming policy to have chargebacks only on programs that a host community college doesn’t offer.”
Erie County legislators have joined the fight to reform the chargeback policy. On January 22, 2015, the Erie County Legislature’s Community Enrichment Committee unanimously passed a resolution submitted by Legislator Barabara Miller-Williams (D-Buffalo) conveying its support for chargeback reform at the State level. “New York State’s chargeback policy was implemented into State law in the 1950s, and is inadvertently causing an undue burden on Erie County’s struggling local governments. A review of New York State’s antiquated system of Community College Chargeback Rates is warranted in order to formulate a multi-partisan strategy to address this issue with the WNY State Delegation and encourage reform of this chargeback policy,” stated Miller-Williams in her resolution.
Despite the attention the issue is getting on a local level, Reuter does not see a change in the policy in the near future. “I don’t think it’s ever going to change because it’s more an isolated situation. Erie has issues and few other counties have issues, but as far as statewide, the concern is not there,” said Reuter.
Erie County paid over $3.4 million in chargeback fees to NCCC in 2013. The equivalent of 1,377 full-time students from Erie County attended NCCC in 2013, with the majority of students enrolled in programs also offered by ECC. “Nine of the top ten programs that we lose students to NCCC are programs offered at ECC,” said Reuter.
Perhaps the bigger issue raised by the chargeback policy is: Why are students willing to travel farther to schools such as NCCC and GCC, to enroll in the same program offered at ECC?
“The major thing attracting students is dorms. We don’t have dorms at ECC. The second driving force is new academic programs,” said Reuter. “If you look NCCC’s major spurts in growth and chargebacks, they came when the school opened up their student housing and with the opening of their new baking and culinary arts facility in Niagara Falls,” said Reuter.
While he feels policy reform is bleak, Reuter does feel the new additions ECC is making to its Amherst North Campus and academic programs will be the key to reducing chargeback fees on Erie County.
“ECC is going to open a new STEM building at North Campus. When we break ground on that a developer stated that he would build student housing across the street. I really feel this will trigger a reduction in student chargebacks,” said Reuter. ECC is still in the planning stages for the new build, but hopes to break ground in the Spring, 2016 and have the building completed by the Summer, 2017. “However, the biggest thing we’re doing is improving our programs that will lead to jobs. The new STEM building will offer a lot of those,” said Reuter. “We have a grant for a nanotechnology program that will start in September, and we’re starting a bunch of new certificate programs. It’s all about the programs that will lead to jobs and wage-gains—that’s how we’re going to retain Erie County students.”
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