Will politicians really fix ECC?

So what’s next for Erie Community College now that a state audit has confirmed much of what I’ve written about over the last year about the unauthorized spending and job creation at the public college under the administration of President Jack Quinn?

Kevin Hardwick ...will hear from ECC

For starters, elected officials like the county executive and county lawmakers have now been put in a position I’m sure they find uncomfortable that requires that they take some action to appease the public after the scathing state review although only time will tell if anything will really change given the politics involved.

In his response to the highly critical state audit, Board Chairman Steve Boyd said the vice chair of the board, Dennis Murphy, will lead a working group to review every issue contained within the audit and will examine each of the 22 recommendations made by state auditors and prepare a corrective action plan for adoption by the board, probably within 90 days.

Now to just refresh our readers, it was that board that came under heavy fire in the state audit for being too passive and not doing its oversight job of protecting the public dollars involved in running the college, mostly rubber-stamping the Quinn administration’s policies including the unauthorized job creation and spending. Now that board is going to put together a plan to fix things under the leadership of Murphy, a recommended appointment of former County Executive Chris Collins, who, like Quinn, is a Republican. Can the public really expect that rubber-stamp board—even with three new additions–to issue a strong corrective action plan that curbs Quinn’s power? And how about the GOP-controlled legislature and the Democratic county executive, an uneasy but working partnership that neither side may want to damage to really fix ECC by cleaning house?

The state audit found little evidence college officials under Quinn were tightening their belts to meet the growing financial crisis at the college, and quite the opposite, were probably contributing to it by spending money without authorization on new positions and raises to senior staff, all without the approval of the board.

County Executive Poloncarz ...faces ECC crisis

As I reported last week, State Comptroller Tom DiNapoli said “our auditors found a lax control environment in which significant decisions were made out of the view of the board, the public and students,” and that includes creating 10 senior executive positions between 2010 and 2015 with yearly salaries averaging $75,600 without written authorization from the board of trustees, as required by state law.

In effect, the audit painted the picture of a runaway administration under Quinn that pretty much did what it wanted and spent what it wanted as the board was kept in the dark and provided little or no oversight to the activities of the administration.

It was a scathing audit report and elected officials are scurrying to come up with some answers to the crisis that we’ve been writing about for close to a year with little public response. It took the first state audit in 20 years to get at least some attention from politicians with the full public impact of the disclosure of the mostly secret administrative activities still not known.

In an email, Peter Anderson, the spokesman for Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz, said “he (Poloncarz) will be sitting down with President Quinn this week to go over the audit and demand that many of the problems identified in the audit be fixed.” Anderson added that Poloncarz will be investigating what actions the county can take to remedy problems identified in the audit, and one of those remedies might include an increase in the county subsidy, but certainly not before changes are made at the college to ensure the public’s money is spent responsibly. Anderson did not say when that meeting between Poloncarz and Quinn will take place. Maybe it already has and we just haven’t been told.

One of the major problems at ECC that has contributed to the financial meltdown—along with the high-spending and secretive administration—is the county subsidy to the college which has been well short of the community college funding formula for sponsoring counties which should be at 26.7 percent of budget and is far below that mark at less than 16 percent. Just for the record, Poloncarz is a Democrat and the well-paid Quinn ($192,500 not including several outside gigs) is a former Republican congressman from Hamburg which makes thing interesting when you consider the GOP’s control of the legislature. This may be one of those cases where political leanings should be put aside to put the valuable community resource that is ECC on a path to recovery, but only time will tell if real answers emerge or if politicians simply paint over the crisis with empty promises, a remedy that is often used when politics are in the mix.

Kevin Hardwick, a Republican and chairman of the legislature’s Community Enrichment Committee, says his panel will hear from ECC officials next Thursday (Jan. 28) in a session tentatively set for 2 p.m.

Hardwick, to his credit, has been a player in trying to find ways to improve the college’s fiscal situation even before the release last week of the highly critical state audit.

“I think it is important for everyone in government to get assurances that the 22 recommendations made by the comptroller are implemented,” said Hardwick, saying he believes the ECC board of trustees will be more active in monitoring the administration’s activities going forward, citing the addition of three new board members appointed by Poloncarz, including Tim Callan of the budget office.

Will the new board members and implementation of the comptroller’s recommendations be enough to rein in Quinn and company after years of unchecked control? We’ll do our best to keep you posted on how public officials are spending your money in the name of education at ECC and whether there is the political will to protect the public college and the back-breaking tuition hikes for students that is likely to continue for some time.

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