When Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone was Babylon town supervisor, he stood in front of the H. Lee Dennison building in Hauppauge in 2011 to denounce predecessor Steve Levy’s plan to shift $11 million in costs to towns to pay for local students who attend community colleges outside Suffolk.
The move, Bellone said, “made no sense governmentally” because towns have nothing to do with community colleges. Once elected that November, Bellone did nothing to reverse the move, since the county at the time was facing a $500 million shortfall.
Now the county, still about $200 million in the hole, may be eyeing to shift as much as $42 million, the county’s entire share of operating costs for Suffolk County Community College, the state’s largest community college, with more than 20,000 students on its three campuses.
The legislature’s office of budget review in a report this summer suggested the county consider the option of using section 6304 of state education law, which permits the county to charge back to towns and cities for the county’s share of college operating costs, based on the number of students who come from each town.
The issue surfaced again last week at the end of a meeting among Bellone aides, college officials, lawmakers and budget staffs over long-term financing of the college. Deputy County Executive Jon Schneider asked legislative budget analysts if they had more research on the cost-shift idea. When Bellone’s past opposition to cost shifting was raised, Schneider joked, “That was a one-day story.”
Vanessa Baird-Streeter, Bellone’s spokeswoman, said there are no plans now to include such a shift in the 2017 budget because not enough is known about it and more research is needed. But college counsel Louis Petrizzo, who was at the session, later said, “It has to be a tantalizing idea for a budget director.”
With Bellone’s proposed 2017 operating budget due in less than a month, removing college operating costs from the county ledger could give the county executive tax revenue to reallocate for other expenses, including the new 175-cadet police class, the largest in county history.
Anthony Picente, the Oneida County executive, said about 12 of New York’s 62 counties impose college chargebacks. He said his county began in 2012 imposing one-third the cost for the 5,000-student Mohawk Valley Community College to its 28 towns and three cities.
Picente acknowledged there was pushback early on, but feels it more equitably splits costs for students between its two largest cities, Utica and Rome — where campuses are located — and more rural parties of the county. He also said the county continues to pay for college capital projects — about $3 million a year. Suffolk’s debt service cost for campus construction this year is $8.9 million, which would not change.
But critics say it is nothing more than a backdoor tax hike because Bellone would be unlikely to cut county taxes by the amount shifted to towns and it could create havoc for towns under the state property tax cap. It would let Suffolk set the level of college costs but leave towns, which have no say, to pay for it.
Babylon Supervisor Rich Schaffer said he was unaware the idea was on the table. “If they are discussing something that concerns the towns, the first group they should talk to is the towns themselves,” he said.
Brookhaven Supervisor Edward P. Romaine added the county should not try to unload its fiscal problems on the towns. But, he added, “Desperate people do desperate things.”