According to Ulster County Community College president Don Katt, the two year school graduated 583 last month, its largest class ever. The college may be on the rise, but not so additional financial support from county government — for the sixth year in a row.
According to an annual budget proposal released last week, college trustees are asking Ulster County to appropriate $6.3 million towards the college’s $25.6-million operating budget, which increased less than $200,000 over 2013-14. That’s the same amount as in 2009 and every year since. Student tuition will again rise by $100 a year, to a still very affordable $4320.
State aid is up about $180,000, about a third what had been promised. Had the county offered just a little more, the tuition increase would have been avoidable. Under enacting state legislation, community colleges were supposed to be equally funded by the state, counties and tuition. As of now, according to college officials, the state and county pay about a quarter each, leaving half the tab for students.
Katt does not blame county executive Mike Hein or the county legislature for freezing aid. “We ask for additional appropriations every year, but the county is going through difficult financial times and we all have to do our share,” he said. He does criticize the state for reneging on its promises of additional support, even as the state works through its own financial issues. Andrew Cuomo inherited a $5-billion deficit in 2011, since converted into a very modest surplus.
The county executive is all for education and the community college. He is the driving force behind the conversion of an abandoned grade school on Mary’s Avenue in Kingston into an adjunct of the college. And as we are frequently reminded by the executive media machine, this project is being carried out with aid, grants and funding from the college, with no direct impact on the county property tax.
Hein’s strategy is clearly ordered. While freezing county aid to the community college, Hein has also (almost) frozen the property tax at near a zero increase for the past three budgets, he has held the tax levy to about $78 million the last three years. In addition, Hein has reduced county spending by almost $23 million this year. And yet, there is no money available for the college?
There is one long-shot possibility for community college relief: the county legislature. Executive-compliant through Republican and Democratic majorities, the legislature, by charter the policy-making body of government, actually has the last word on what has been every year since 2009 a policy decision by the executive. With apologies to sportscaster Marv Alert, that last word has always been “Yes!” in approving the executive’s number.
The legislature always makes voting on the college budget an occasion, meeting at the college in Stone Ridge in special session, but at the same time refusing to appropriate an additional dime.
Legislative committee chairman Dave Donaldson, a retired (28-year) high school teacher, says it’s high time the county stepped up to the plate to meet its obligations to the college. “We can’t do much about the state,” he said, “but if we don’t do our own share or at least begin heading in that direction [toward 33 percent], it is in my view hypocritical.”
Having voted for the last five budget freezes, Donaldson, like his colleagues, cannot claim the high ground. But, as he said, they can at least begin.
Will this new Democratic majority (the executive’s own party) rise up at the college budget meeting on Wednesday and in the public interest vote at least enough of a county increase to offset the tuition increase (about $220,000)? Or will they again sit on their hands and applaud a fiscal policy that continues to shortchange students?
The worm turneth
After months of playing rope-a-dope to Mike Hein, assemblyman Kevin Cahill seems poised for counterattack, with muscle and money. And not a moment too soon.
Ah, the powers of the Assembly purse and government printing machines. Last week, just as delegates were deciding what to wear to Thursday’s unofficial county Democratic nominating convention in Kingston, Cahill flooded district mailboxes with an Assembly-paid mailer that begins with, “Thanks to assemblyman Kevin Cahill, your local property tax bill will now be lower.”