BY TONY FARINA
I wrote last week that the rubber may be close to hitting the road when It comes to the financial crisis at Erie Community College, but so far County Executive Mark Poloncarz is holding his powder over the recent budget plan adopted by the ECC Board of Trustees that raises tuition for a third straight year, increases the student technology fees by 27 percent, and raids the reserve fund again — this time to the tune of $1.5 million, which puts the fund into dangerous territory when it comes to ECC’s Middle States Accreditation.
Last week, Poloncarz’s communication’s chief, Peter Anderson, said via email that the county executive had the budget but it would take time to fully look it over and he would consult again with ECC President Jack Quinn before making any kind of statement.
Apparently, Democrat Poloncarz and Republican Quinn still have not met yet on the new budget adopted by ECC and it is hard to tell when that meeting might take place based on this week’s response from the county executive. Anderson, the communication’s chief, advised via email that “the county executive has the budget and is reviewing it. He [Poloncarz] has not spoken to President Quinn about the budget but plans to do so when he has reviewed the document in its entirety.” Sounds pretty much like last week’s email.
When that meeting eventually does take place, there could be fireworks as Poloncarz has warned about writing a blank check to ECC given the financial mismanagement identified in the recent state audit report that found, among other things, that Quinn had been handing out raises and bonuses to his senior staff without board approval. The board was criticized for having lax controls in place at ECC, which is certainly a contributing factor in the college’s fiscal decline.
But while ECC’s board has promised the state comptroller that it will fix the problems, Poloncarz will likely want his own assurances that the county won’t be throwing good money after bad if it raises the county subsidy, which currently is well short of the 26.7 percent of the school’s budget that it is supposed to contribute to ECC under the community college funding formula. Frankly, according to informed sources, ECC is on thin ice when it comes to surviving as an important community asset unless something is done to reverse the tide.
The Republican-controlled county legislature last week did approve an allocation of $1 million to ECC for an early retirement incentive although Poloncarz was quoted as saying, “I’m not sure this resolves any of the major issues ECC has.” And school sources say officials see the county allocation as unclear, wondering if it should have been more specific to be really helpful.
As things stand now, Legislator Kevin Hardwick, who played a key role in settling labor contracts at the school, said a public hearing is tentatively expected to take place June 2 regarding the ECC budget. That hearing is likely to attract a big crowd of stakeholders in the ECC crisis, including faculty and students as well as college officials. The slow response from the county executive signals the difficulty the county faces in trying to revive the sinking college before it is too late. Right now, ECC is surviving on the backs of students, and all the stakeholders and elected officials know they need to find another way.