By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO Finances weighed heavily on county officials Thursday.
While 37 vacant positions were filled by legislators that day, 13 more remained vacant, as jobs like a 911 dispatcher, a probation officer and a district attorney investigator required more county funding than they were ready to give.
“They’re not all equal in this case,” noted Legislator Leni Binder, pointing out that most of the filled jobs require no county funding (save for retirement costs down the road), while the unfilled do.
A veterans service officer job remained unfilled, as well, with Legislator Ron Hiatt indicating his choice of former Veterans Services Agency Director John Bridges was not the choice of current Director John Crotty.
Despite the fact that the Legislature cannot dictate to department heads who gets hired for a position, Hiatt said he wouldn’t vote to fund the veterans officer unless the retired Bridges got the job.
“There was an understanding,” Hiatt insisted. “If there’s no understanding, then there’s no position.”
But the biggest issue of the day arrived not just with the board and administration of Sullivan County Community College, but the top brass of the SUNY system itself.
“We are here today to offer our assistance to the County Legislature to find a reasonable solution to the fiscal challenge facing the county and SCCC and its nearly 1,800 students,” said Johanna Duncan-Poitier, SUNY’s vice chancellor for community colleges.
But when pressed at a later meeting with legislators, Duncan-Poitier had little really to give other than the warning that the Legislature’s proposed $600,000 cut in county funding to SCCC would translate to a $2.6 million loss for the college.
“The proposed cut may seriously jeopardize the ability of the college you sponsor to open this fall,” she stated, “because cuts this deep are so devastating that they affect the very viability of the college to operate.”
Duncan-Poitier and her SUNY colleagues told legislators that even if the county were to cut its current $4 million contribution to SCCC’s $16 million budget by just one dollar, state law would mandate a reduction in tuition to supply just one-third of the college’s operating budget.
Due to the state itself not fully funding its required one-third of the college’s budget and the county’s inability to offer more, last year SCCC increased its tuition to compensate, climbing past the one-third funding mark for tuition.
Thus reducing the county’s aid to the college from $4 million a year to the proposed $3.4 million would cause a domino effect of reduced funding, said Duncan-Poitier.
“Respectfully, we hope that this situation can be resolved in a manner that will best serve the students of SCCC and will not negate the investment you have already made in this institution,” she said, noting that no other county with a community college has proposed cutting its contribution this year.
Legislators were sympathetic to the college’s plight but also aggravated by the state’s unwillingness to meet its financial obligations while hiding behind what they felt was a rather archaic law.
“We have to find a way around this $600,000 being multiplied by a larger figure,” urged Legislature Chair Jonathan Rouis.
With legislators Alan Sorensen and David Sager opposed (and Frank Armstrong absent), the Legislature agreed to table the matter until the June 9 Government Services Committee meeting (1:30 p.m. at the Government Center).
In the intervening weeks, they and college officials plan to lobby NYS Senator John Bonacic and Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther for more money for the college and for reforming an outdated funding formula.
“We’re not broke, but we’re darn near broke,” Hiatt told Duncan-Poitier. “... So here we are, and what do we do? ... I don’t know that we can afford to give the college any more this year.
“We’re all stuck.”
That said, legislators agreed they don’t want to see the college disappear, which gave Duncan-Poitier hope that a resolution can be found.
“I believe in my heart we want the same thing,” she concluded.