It took almost six years and a nudge from some maverick legislators, but the Hein administration has finally come around to the notion that Ulster County should be increasing its share of support for its community college. And by doing so, it is giving students some relief from tuition charges. The record clearly suggests that County Executive Mike Hein, in office since January 2009, is now attempting to take credit for addressing a problem he created and sustained.
The 2014-15 college budget presented to the county legislature last week called for a $100 yearly increase in tuition while continuing its freeze on the county’s contribution for the sixth straight year. Some legislators, like Carl Belfiglio of Port Ewen, believe students, most of who are on one form of financial assistance or another, can easily afford the extra c-note. But the problem hasn’t been with what students can afford. It’s what the county claims it can’t afford, which is to say, one more dime for the college. This year, the budgeted increase in student tuition would have brought in $241,538 in added revenue.
At a joint legislative committee meeting at the college last Wednesday, Deputy County Executive Ken Crannell, speaking on behalf of the county executive, made it clear to legislators that the executive would not welcome a county increase in the college’s proposed budget. He didn’t say the county couldn’t afford an increase in the $6.3 million allocated to the college since 2009. He said, however, that at this stage of the budget cycle the county didn’t know whether it could afford it. The college’s fiscal year begins July 1. The county will finalize its 2015 budget by late September.
Dave Donaldson, chairman of the legislative committee that oversees the college and one of those calling for tuition relief, wondered why the county was playing poor-mouth at this point in time. “We sold Golden Hill for $11.5 million, privatized mental health, and laid off 500 employees. And each time we’re told we don’t have the money [for the college]?” he asked. Donaldson said later that he has only been raising these issues “for the past year or two.” Like every other legislator, he has consistently voted for tuition increases, leaving the county’s contribution frozen. Lately, he and others have found religion.
Ways and Means Chairman Rich Gerentine of Marlborough echoed Crannell’s concerns. “We just don’t know where we are at this point [halfway through the budget cycle],” he said. Their alleged cluelessness about where the budget stands does not inspire confidence.
But wait …
Hold the presses. This Monday morning, Hein got together with Majority Leader Don Gregorius and Minority Leader Ken Ronk to forge a “bipartisan” tuition rescue package. Under Hein’s proposal, the college will “identify” $121,000 in savings in its $29 million operating budget, while the county will forgive a similar amount in leasing costs for college facilities at the county Business Resource Center.
Presto! No tuition increase.
Before parading the county executive around the Stone Ridge campus of UCCC in a chariot, let’s go to the videotape. The routine since the executive system went into effect in 2009 has been for the college president to approach the county executive, hat in hand, around mid-March to request an increase in the county government’s $6.3 million share of the annual budget. For six years Hein has pleaded poverty, even in the face of rising tuition levels. Adopted by college trustees more or less behind closed doors, presented at public hearing at the college — no one spoke at last week’s — and rubber-stamped by the legislature, college budget preparation and approval have been very much a closed-circuit operation.
For the first time, at least in my fading memory, the college budget process has come under a bit of scrutiny. Heretofore, college budgets were treated like something Moses might have brought down from the mountain.
Incoming college board of trustees Chairman Bill Spearman, for instance, said his board would be paying a good deal more attention to relations with county government on budget issues than heretofore. Spearman, a prominent retired credit-union boss and well-respected civic leader, knows from budgets. That college trustees, themselves some of our more prominent citizens, may begin acting more like stewards of the institution they serve — yea, even as student advocates! — should be welcome news.
If Hein’s 180-degree turn is any indicator, public opinion may finally have begun to seep into county government. It’s possible that Hein saw his tight-fisted approach to student support at the college something that needed to be assuaged before he faces voters next year.
Hein doesn’t promise continuing assistance in 2015, of course, but if he’s in for a few pennies based on the county’s overall support of the college this year, maybe he’ll be in for more coins in an election year.
Some legislators are talking about the legislature getting involved in the college budget- making process before it’s written in stone. That’s unlikely. Higher-education finance is above the pay grade of most legislators. Roads and bridges they understand.
We were also treated to the remarkable sight of a legislator actually refusing to vote on something she hadn’t had the opportunity to study. Rookie Democrat Lynn Archer from Rochester took a pass, explaining that she, like other legislators, had received the budget only on the evening of the committee vote. Legislators of the “we’ve-always-done-it-that-way” ilk seemed dismayed. Nonetheless, nine of 12 voted to send the budget as presented to the full legislature for final approval.
College officials seemed to get Archer’s point, promising to get the budget, adopted a month ago by college trustees, to legislators earlier next year. That’s of course no guarantee that legislators will read it before voting.
The administration, while praising Gregorius and Ronk for their bipartisan assistance in finding a solution to what might be called “the tuition crisis,” excoriated Donaldson and legislature Chairman John Parete for bringing it up in the first place. Donaldson, who’s witnessed this Orwellian dog-and-pony show before, took it in stride. “I’ve had these discussions with the county executive before,” he said. “I’m just glad that he finally understands education is a priority.”
Donaldson understands that this will not be the last word on this topic, now that he and Parete may be on the executive’s enemies list.
Ulster County suffers in many respects in comparison to its neighbor across the river, be it in economic development, federal hospital reimbursement rates or community colleges. Tuition at Dutchess Community College, $1,000 lower than in Ulster, hasn’t been raised it in four years. In addition, Dutchess last year completed construction of a $33 million, 465-bed dormitory complex. Ulster has been chewing on building dorms on the campus for years.
Questions raised about student housing at Ulster, which according to college President Don Katt “hasn’t been talked about by trustees for two years,” got ubiquitous County Comptroller Elliott Auerbach to regurgitating an old idea of his. “I told them [UCCC] five years ago that they should follow the example of Ellenville Community Hospital, which built senior housing adjacent to the hospital,” he said. “I asked the college to consider building student housing and senior housing. Some of the seniors would take courses at the colleges and guess what, maybe they’ll will the college some money when they die.”
Good idea, but like the college president said, floating in the water like some Hudson River log.
Here and there
Dutchess County Executive Marc Molinaro’s endorsement of a casino in Orange County couldn’t have set too well in Ulster. Deadline for applications, which include the former Nevele in Ellenville, is a week from Monday.