County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed a resolution to force Suffolk's 10 towns to pay $3.4 million in annual tuition costs for local bachelor and graduate degree students who attend Manhattan's Fashion Institute of Technology.
Bellone's resolution, approved by the legislature's finance committee Tuesday, comes after the state appellate division earlier this year reversed a lower-court ruling in a Nassau County case. The full legislature could vote on the new charges Tuesday. The lower court had found in 2010 that local governments were not responsible to make FIT tuition payments beyond a two-year community college degree.
"We think it's unfair for us to have to pay for the third and fourth year of FIT students, but it's clear, based on the recent decision in Nassau, that we are responsible," said Vanessa Baird-Streeter, Bellone's spokeswoman.
She said the county also has negotiated a proposed agreement with FIT officials to repay $4.9 million in past tuition charges that the county had withheld since the lower court decision. Because settlement talks are ongoing, FIT officials declined to comment.
That deal, which requires legislative approval, would allow the county to pay back FIT over three years without interest or incurring FIT legal fees, she said.
Baird-Streeter said towns cannot be charged for the withheld tuition in the 2011-2012 school year or the fall 2012 semester because the appeals court ruled the counties cannot shift costs to towns retroactively. But they can do so on a prospective basis after county legislature approval. The bills for spring 2013 semester are only now coming in.
When Bellone, then Babylon supervisor, ran for county executive two years ago, he opposed shifting college tuition cost to the towns in a news conference with other supervisors. Bellone, a Democrat, said at the time, "It's wrong for the county to pass their budget problems to town taxpayers."
Baird-Streeter said that during the campaign, the severity of the "fiscal constraints was not privy to anyone at the time. Under current fiscal conditions, the county needs to charge back the towns."
County officials say tuition bills are based on the number of students from each town. Based on spring tuition bills, Brookhaven had a nearly 29 percent share, Islip 20 percent and Babylon nearly 18 percent. The smallest was Southold with 2.2 percent share of the costs.
Several Suffolk town supervisors said they haven't been informed of the renewed tuition.
"Its kind of curious that the county complains about unfunded mandates, but now is passing one down to the towns," said Brookhaven Supervisor Edward Romaine, a Republican.
Nassau, which had refused to accept documents from upper-level students seeking out-of-county tuition payments since the earlier lower court ruling, reached an agreement with FIT on May 15. County Attorney John Ciampoli said the deal allows students to file for past claims through the end of June.
Ciampoli also said the county is in talks with Hempstead and Oyster Bay to resolve the issue of past chargebacks. North Hempstead, which had challenged the county cost shift, is asking the Court of Appeals for leave to appeal the appellate ruling, he added.