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Veteran Reporter Sees Smoke

Hot Farina
Veteran reporter sees smoke

No amount of theatrics can cover up the financial crisis facing Erie Community College, something the Niagara Falls Reporter reported on extensively over the last several months.

This week, County Executive Mark Poloncarz and ECC President Jack Quinn took to the stage to unveil renderings for the new $30 million Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) building planned for the north campus in Amherst. However, the real story at Erie Community College is the likelihood of another round of tuition hikes, a quickly disappearing reserve fund endangering Middle States accreditation and a school administration headed by an often absentee president and a weak and ineffective board of trustees.

But there is plenty of blame to go around for ECC’s struggles aside from the leadership team. Last year, County Executive Mark Poloncarz bumped the county subsidy to ECC by a modest $125,000 to $17,554,317, or about 15.6 percent of the school’s budget. But that 15.6 percent subsidy is far short of the more than 26 percent called for in the community college funding formula. That funding gap has been covered by spending down the school’s reserves and hiking tuition, but the reserves are just about gone and more tuition hikes are almost a certainty.

Poloncarz is the county executive, but there are other elected county officials who also must share the blame for ECC’s struggles, and it appears county lawmakers, even the Republicans, are finally getting the message that the county needs to step up to save the college and preserve a community workforce engine before an embarrassing collapse.

In his proposed $1.6 billion budget for 2016, Poloncarz is including a bump of $245,883 in the county subsidy to ECC, an increase that is hardly a game changer for a school swimming in red ink. It is in the same range in terms of the total school budget as the current subsidy and certainly leaves little room to settle the school’s financial challenges, among them trying to settle a long-standing contract dispute with the Faculty Federation which has operated without a contract since 2009.

Poloncarz boasts that he increased the county subsidy for ECC in the current year, noting it was the first increase in funding since 2008, but while it was welcome, even usually soft spoken Board President Steve Boyd, a Quinn loyalist, was hardly overwhelmed.

Boyd said in an interview that the college has been forced to make up for the county shortfalls by using fund balance and raising tuition. Other emergency measures were put in place, such as a hiring freeze, but the damage has been done.

Even as the school struggles behind the theatrics of the rollout of the STEM building schematics, we have learned that two former legal aides to Kristin Klein Wheaton, ECC’s vice president for legal affairs brought on board by Quinn, have each received a $10,000 raise in the ECC budget and have been assigned to the important Human Resources Department. Their names are Christopher Maugans and Maria Carroll. We have also learned that Patricia Losito, who heads the nursing program and amazingly was a member of the Faculty Federation union’s negotiating team, got a $20,000 pay raise.

While there is a financial crisis, apparently there is room to reward certain staffers at the school while the stalemate with the major faculty union continues.

In a statement, Poloncarz didn’t respond to my questions about the pay raises, but he did say that he was mindful of the school’s autonomy from the county under a local law approved in 2003, and said his administration “is committed to working in partnership with Erie Community College (‘ECC”) to improve our county college and help educate and train the next generation of leaders and workers.” That commitment may need to have a more tangible presence if the school is to survive, but it will take more than the county executive to find long-term answers.

“My goal is to get some more money for the college,” says Kevin Hardwick, chairman of the legislature’s Enrichment Committee and a member of the one-vote Republican majority.

“We are probably not going to be able to come up with $7 million, but I’m hoping we can find maybe $2 million,” said Hardwick in a telephone interview. Hardwick is also pushing to help settle the Faculty Federation contract, even if it takes a one shot infusion before it gets out of hand with increasing health costs and other increases that are bound to occur as the contract remains unsettled.

We left a message at the Erie Community College press office seeking comment on the school’s financial situation and the pay raises that were given to the three staffers. We received no response.

Poloncarz is well aware of the financial problems at the college and has acknowledged, as the Buffalo News has reported, that the college faces challenges, including lower enrollment, higher health insurance costs and “chargeback” payments for Erie County residents who attend other colleges.

More may come to light shortly on just what is going on behind closed doors at ECC under Quinn and Wheaton as State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli is expected to release the state’s first audit of ECC in 20 years. That report is expected early next month. . It had been expected months ago but has been delayed for unexplained reasons. We have reported that state auditors and ECC staffers under Wheaton appeared to be at odds during the course of that audit. We’ll know soon, probably a few days after the Nov. 3 election, what DiNapoli and his team have to say about ECC’s financial operations.

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