Nassau facing dilemma after FIT ruling

North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman. (May 24, 2011)

North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman. (May 24, 2011) (Credit: David Pokress)

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North Hempstead Supervisor Jon Kaiman last week struck a blow for local governments statewide when a court sided with his argument that taxpayers should not have to foot any of the bill for people seeking bachelor's or master's degrees at Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology.

The town had sued Nassau over the county's right to impose tuition charges on towns for local students who attend state community colleges elsewhere -- particularly FIT, which is classified in state law as a two-year community college, but also offers bachelor's and master's degrees.

In his ruling, State Supreme Court Justice Anthony Parga upheld Nassau's right to collect out-of-county tuition from towns, but limited charges to those for FIT's two-year associate degree programs. Currently, the school charges the home counties of students from outside Manhattan $10,980 per year for any degree.

Nassau's Republican administration now faces unenviable choices. It can seek an appeal of Parga's ruling even though it frees Nassau taxpayers from the bulk of FIT tuition. It also could ignore arguments it just made before Parga and join North Hempstead in a suit to block FIT from billing for local students after two years.

Or the county could do nothing. If it takes that tack, the fiscally strapped county would have to foot the bill for FIT's bachelor's and master's students from Nassau.

While the ruling has statewide implications, what makes the decision highly unusual is that FIT itself was not a party to the suit. Of FIT's 10,386 students, the school charges back local governments for 2,193 of them -- more than half from Nassau and Suffolk. Under the ruling, Nassau would be free of making payments for 265 of its 612 FIT students while Suffolk would no longer have to make payment for 268 of its 600 FIT students.

Loretta Lawrence Keane, an FIT vice president, said that while the ruling has no immediate impact on the school, "If we have concerns, it is that our Nassau and Suffolk students receive what the law provides. We maintain there is no limitation under the law to a particular program in which a student is enrolled."

The ruling also has a huge impact on Republican-controlled Hempstead and Oyster Bay, which did not join North Hempstead's lawsuit, but stand to benefit even more than the $1.17 million Kaiman's town should receive if the decision stands.

Nassau County Attorney John Ciampoli said Nassau's dilemma is that it is caught between two conflicting sections of state law -- one that lists FIT as a two-year community college and another that allows FIT to offer bachelor's and master's degrees.

"There is an incongruity in the two laws, which does not make sense," Ciampoli said. "Parga tried to apply common sense to the law, but if that's what the State Legislature intended, they should have said so."

Kaiman said Nassau should drop its battle against the town and unite to battle what he characterized as FIT's unfair tuition charges. "We won this for our town residents," Kaiman said. "And now the county should join forces with us . . . The great irony here is what we did was good for all county taxpayers."

Suffolk Legis. Thomas Cilmi (R-Bay Shore), a critic of the charges, is ready to enlist. He filed a resolution in the wake of the court ruling to bar the county comptroller from making any tuition payments for Suffolk's FIT students beyond the two-year program.

"This is not an argument based on party lines or county lines," Cilmi said.

Stephen Acquario, state Association of Counties executive director, said the ruling has focused attention on the issue statewide and may finally force action.