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APR 21 - APR 28, 2015

Poloncarz, Walter Both Face Growing Crisis at ECC

By Tony Farina

April 21, 2015

Whoever sits on the 16th floor of Erie County Hall next year will have to balance the wants and needs of Erie Community College and the taxpayers of Erie County.

The race is on for Erie County executive between Democratic incumbent Mark Poloncarz, seeking a second term, and his Republican challenger, Amherst Assemblyman Raymond Walter who officially launched his campaign last Saturday.

Walter received the GOP nod after first County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw and then County Clerk Chris Jacobs withdrew from consideration and said Monday night during a telephone interview that he plans on running a grassroots campaign, going from town-to-town and village-to-village, to deliver his "better and smarter government" message to voters.

While the candidates will slug it out over the spring and summer at barbecues and festivals, the growing issue both face is Erie Community College's mounting budget crisis, an issue we've brought to light in recent weeks through a series of articles highlighting ECC's downward spiral marked by declining enrollment, tuition increases, and a dwindling fund balance that could threaten future accreditation.

Last week, Poloncarz responded through an email from his press office that he has increased the county's operational subsidy to ECC in 2015, noting it will be the first increase in seven years, dating back to the administration of Joel Giambra.

However what Poloncarz didn't say in his statement was that the increase, according to ECC Board Chairman Steve Boyd, amounts to only $125,000 more than the $17.429,317 the college has received each of the last seven years. That total, according to Boyd, represents about 15.5 percent of the college's overall budget when the county contribution should be 26.7 percent. And Boyd said the college has been forced to make up for the shortfalls by using fund balance and raising tuition (another hike seems likely). Emergency belt-tightening measures are currently under consideration by the ECC board as it deliberates on a budget for the coming year, sure to include another tuition hike.

Now we've raised questions about the leadership at ECC under President Jack Quinn who signed a new $192,500-a-year contract in 2013 after losing out on his secret bid to land the top job at the Buffalo Niagara Partnership to replace retiring Andrew Rudnick. And we've reported on his extensive travel schedule as a member of at least two national boards, one of which pays him a reported $140,000. But certainly among the challenges facing the three-campus school is the county's failure to meet its financial obligations under Chris Collins and Poloncarz.

We raised the issue of the budget crisis at the public college on Monday night with GOP challenger Walter, and he said "there needs to be more of an investment [at ECC]," calling the $125,000 increase this year by Poloncarz "a drop in the bucket while he [Poloncarz] has increased spending in his office by $500,000."

But Walter added there needs to be a review at ECC "from top to bottom before we make any decisions because I wouldn't want to blindly throw money at the problem until we know what's going on."

Walter called ECC an important training ground for a disengaged workforce to better prepare people for the new jobs being created as part of the Buffalo Billion initiative.

"The county has money to spend, it is a matter of prioritizing where you spend it," said the Amherst assemblyman. "The college is certainly an important training ground."

As we've reported, ECC is facing a current deficit of $1.2 million and a projected deficit of $7.8 million next year, practically guaranteeing another tuition hike and another raid on the reserves.

How to deal with the crisis unfolding at the college with an enrollment of more than 12,000 students is sure to be major topic in this year's race for county executive as neither Poloncarz nor Walter will likely want to suggest a tax increase despite the danger that if the college further depletes its reserve fund, it could lose its Middle States accreditation.

Erie Community College is a two-year community college that is part of the 64-campus SUNY system. ECC serves Erie County and the surrounding communities. The college currently enrolls around 12,000 students at three campuses - Buffalo (above), Williamsville and Orchard Park and offers associate degrees and certificate programs, non-credit courses and training programs. The current president of ECC is former Congressman Jack Quinn, who was appointed in April 2008.






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