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Court of Appeals backs Nassau versus towns in tuition dispute

ALBANY -- Nassau County has won a long-running dispute with local towns over the burden of covering community college tuition.

The state Court of Appeals, in a 7-0 decision issued Thursday, said that Nassau can charge North Hempstead for amounts it paid for local students to attend out-of-county community colleges. At stake was about $1.7 million in annual payments.

The ruling also might affect other Long Island municipalities. Suffolk County, Long Beach and Islip had filed briefs as the case was winding its way through the court system.

Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman, writing for the state's highest court, noted that state law outlines three components of funding for community colleges: state government, local government and students' tuition. If a student attends community college outside of his county of residence, his/her home county can be forced to cover the local-government part of tuition.

In this specific case, the Fashion Institute of Technology, located in Manhattan, was charging Nassau County for a share of the costs of Nassau students who attended the college. The county wanted to pass the charge along to towns, which resisted. Nassau then withheld sales tax revenue from North Hempstead to cover the costs -- which came to about $1.1 million in 2010, according to court documents. North Hempstead filed suit against the county to recover the funds.

The Court of Appeals not only ruled for the county in the FIT dispute, but said it applied to other community colleges as well. Nassau had charged North Hempstead $601,000 in 2010 for payments to two-year schools besides FIT.

"There is nothing in the statute that expressly repeals the county's ability to seek chargebacks from the town," Lippman wrote. "Therefore, the county is permitted to collect chargebacks from the town for costs incurred on behalf of town residents for all FIT degree programs, just as it could for any two-year community college program."

In its ruling, the Court of Appeals upheld a midlevel court ruling. But it went a step further in helping Nassau, striking a provision in the earlier ruling that would have required the county legislature to adopt a formal resolution before imposing charges on the town.

"This is a good ruling that places FIT expenses where they belong," Nassau County attorney Carnell Foskey said in a statement.

A North Hempstead spokeswoman said the case should force lawmakers to tackle the issue of community college funding.

"We respect the court's decision, but are disappointed in the result," said Carole Trottere, town spokeswoman. "We hope that the town's efforts in this case have shed enough light on the issue that steps are finally taken to address the inequities inherent in forcing town taxpayers to fund student attendance at out-of-county community colleges."

With Lisa Irizarry

and Paul LaRocco

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