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Measure shifts county's portion of tuition bill to towns

County Executive Steve Bellone has proposed a resolution

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. (April 5, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Some Suffolk town supervisors are criticizing a measure approved Tuesday by the county legislature to force the towns to foot a $3.4 million annual tuition bill for local students in bachelor's or master's degree programs at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan.

County Executive Steve Bellone, a Democrat, proposed the measure after a January appeals court ruling allowed counties to "chargeback" their share of FIT tuition to the towns. Reactions from town supervisors generally fell along party lines, with Republicans saying the towns shouldn't have to add these costs to already overburdened budgets.

"The town can't be the low rung on the ladder and pick up all the expenses that the county or state are shedding," said East Hampton Supervisor William Wilkinson, a Republican.

Under state law, a county must pay a portion of the tuition for any of its students who attend an out-of-county community college. FIT, which offered only two-year programs when it was founded, presented a unique legal question when it added advanced degrees in the 1970s.

State education law in 1994 began requiring the state to reimburse counties for costs associated with FIT tuition, but since 2001, lawmakers in Albany have not budgeted any funds.

"The county complains about an unfunded mandate from state or federal government and now is doing the exact same thing," said Brookhaven's GOP Supervisor Edward Romaine, whose town faces a bill of $682,720, as estimated by the county's Budget Review Office. "It's not a happy day for our taxpayers."

GOP Supervisor Scott Russell of Southold said towns "had no role or say" in the original agreement to split tuition costs.

Suffolk towns paid $3.9 million in 2011-12 for their students in FIT's two-year programs.

Vanessa Baird-Streeter, a spokeswoman for Bellone, called FIT tuition payments beyond two-year programs "unfair" and "burdensome," but added the measure was necessary "due to the financial constraints of the county."

Many supervisors from smaller towns acknowledged local taxpayers will be helped by tuition payments being calculated on the number of town students at FIT, but objected to the politics behind the measure.

Smithtown's GOP Supervisor Patrick Vecchio said Bellone has changed his stance since leaving his job as Babylon supervisor, when he opposed a similar measure while running for his current office.

"Now, since the county hasn't fixed its budget, he is in favor of the towns paying this tax," Riverhead Republican Supervisor Sean Walter said of Bellone.

Democratic town supervisors were largely silent on the measure. Babylon spokesman Kevin Bonner said it was "premature to comment." The town's supervisor, Democrat Richard Schaffer, is Bellone's mentor. Babylon's extra estimated cost, $1,002,660, would be the largest among Suffolk's 10 towns.

A.J. Carter, a spokesman for Huntington Town, referred to the measure's costs as "a county issue," saying the charge will be directly assessed to residents through a separate line on the tax bill. Supervisor Frank Petrone, a Democrat, was unavailable to comment, Carter said.

Huntington's estimated extra cost will be $797,300, the second-highest for a Suffolk town.

In GOP-run Islip, town attorneys are working to challenge the measure, and might seek a stay of the new law.

In Nassau County, North Hempstead has filed a request with the Court of Appeals to challenge an appellate court decision that made local governments responsible for the tuition payments.


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