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End the community college subsidy

On March 1, 2014, Dutchess County residents will begin paying a tax on energy use including home heating fuel as a means to close a $7.8 million gap in the Dutchess County budget. This energy tax can be repealed at any time if the county cuts an equivalent amount of spending. Ending the county sponsorship of Dutchess Community College (DCC) could create such cost savings.

Taxpayers are stretched to the limit. Yet demands upon county government continue to rise due to a lingering stagnant economy, state-induced unfunded mandates that now consume more than 70 percent of net county costs, social service demands, a declining tax base (down $8.8 billion from 2008) and shrinking revenues.

In 2013, county government spent $15.7 million in community college-related expenses, including $10.8 million in a direct annual subsidy to DCC. This amount is $800,000 higher than in 2012. State law prohibits the county as local sponsor from reducing its contribution to the college from the previous year’s contribution.

Without the flexibility to reduce our subsidies to the college, county government faces tough choices. Raise taxes on county residents to pay the college subsidy that we can no longer afford, or take the county out of the business of higher education.

Under the present community college model, Dutchess County and New York state jointly share in the financial support of DCC, alongside student tuition.

I have introduced legislation to form a legislative committee to inquire if any entity in the community is willing to assume Dutchess County’s role as college sponsor (state law allows cities, counties and school districts). If none can be found, then the county should help the college board of trustees plan for the next chapter of the college’s existence. In doing so we must assure that any change to the college structure be done without interruption to student academics.

The Dutchess Community College is in a firm financial position to brace for the changes ahead. The college has more than $12 million in its reserve funds (20 percent of the operating budget). It has a healthy foundation with an $8 million fund balance. The association has an equally impressive fund balance, last known to be $5 million.

Presumably DCC would become a full-fledged SUNY school with New York state replacing the county’s role as sponsor. The college appears particularly ripe for a seamless SUNY transition. Already it markets itself as SUNY Dutchess. It has been expected — particularly since the advent of the dorms — that it would only be a matter of time before the DCC Board of Trustees sought full SUNY university membership. My resolution expedites this.

More than 50 years ago Dutchess County government gave birth to Dutchess Community College; we nurtured it in its infancy and helped it to secure a firm foundation in the community as a premier place of learning and opportunity. We can be proud of our benefaction.

But now — especially with the coming implementation of the energy tax — more than ever taxpayers are overburdened. The county can no longer afford its multi-million dollar annual patronage to Dutchess Community College. The time has come for county government to end its taxpayer-funded drift into the field of higher education. County leadership must instead free-up SUNY Dutchess to take the next step in its evolution.

Michael N. Kelsey represents the people of Amenia, Washington, Stanford, Pleasant Valley and Millbrook in the Dutchess County Legislature. Write him at KelseyESQ@yahoo.com.