Hundreds of Monroe County students have made their way to community colleges outside the county this month – and with them, millions of dollars in county taxes.
Under state law that dates back almost 70 years, a fee known as “chargeback” is imposed on counties when their residents attend community college outside their borders.
Monroe County has paid more than $ 49 million in chargeback fees to other counties over the past 10 years, and budget records show that figure is growing almost every year. In 2012, the county contributed $ 3.1 million. This year he will spend around $ 6 million.
The payments are in addition to what Monroe County already spends to fund Monroe Community College, which is about $ 19 million per year.
The arrangement has attracted little attention here. But it’s been a controversial issue for years in Erie County, where Erie Community College finance officials and the county tax watchdog compare payments to taxpayers billed twice for community college services. .
Monroe County, like Erie County, passes the cost of chargebacks from community colleges to the municipalities where the students live.
That means taxpayers in Rochester, where dozens of residents receive their education at community colleges outside the county, were billed $ 1.4 million in chargeback fees last year, according to county records. By comparison, the town of Rush, where few residents attended schools outside of Monroe, paid around $ 34,000.
“It certainly doesn’t seem fair,” said Lynne Dixon, Erie County Assistant Deputy Comptroller. “Taxpayers are already spending millions to fund their own schools, and then the state tells them they have to shell out millions more so their students can attend college outside of Erie County.”
New York Community Colleges are funded from three sources: state aid, tuition, and the sponsoring county government. The state created the chargeback system in the 1950s to cover the county portion of that funding equation for students from other counties.
Monroe County and Monroe Community College benefit from chargebacks. Last year, counties across the state were billed $ 4.7 million in chargebacks by MCC, where about 17% of students come from towns, villages and towns outside of Monroe County.
But the gap between MCC’s chargeback revenues and what local municipalities pay to outside community colleges has grown significantly and could widen further if the number of Monroe County residents enrolled in outside colleges increases.
Chargeback revenues are distributed unevenly between MCC and County Monroe to cover operating expenses incurred by the college and capital expenses incurred by the county. The result is that Monroe County received approximately $ 500,000, while its residents collectively donated $ 6 million.
The rest of the chargeback revenue went to MCC.
The arrangement makes sense to Darrell Jachim-Moore, vice president of administrative services at MCC, who issued a statement touting the college’s “exceptional value” and “high quality programs” as being raffles for students of the college. outside the county.
But officials at Erie Community College and the Erie County government have been trying to get the chargeback law changed for years, despite little political interest elsewhere in doing so.
In a notable twist, however, the former CFO of Erie Community College and a longtime opponent of chargebacks, William Reuter, changed his stance on the issue when he was appointed vice president of administration. at Hudson Valley Community College in Rensselaer County, which draws a third of its students from a neighboring county without a community college.
“I’m telling people now that I love chargebacks,” he told The Buffalo News in 2017.
Erie County Comptroller Stefan Mychajliw hasn’t changed his mind. In July, he wrote to Erie County lawmakers to point out that taxpayers paid $ 7.7 million for their residents to attend a school outside of Erie and urged lawmakers to ask why.
“The result is that your voters essentially pay twice,” he wrote. “Taxpayers are already funding part of the ECC. Then they have to pay again for their students who attend community college elsewhere. ”
Howard Maffucci, a Monroe County lawmaker who sits on the Ways and Means Committee and is a former public school principal who has spent a career dissecting budgets, disagrees with the comptroller’s logic.
“He doesn’t understand this, doesn’t want to understand this or is playing politics,” Maffucci said. “Unless Erie County does something different than Monroe County, you won’t be charged twice.”
But the Erie County Comptroller isn’t the only one complaining about community college chargebacks.
The Ulster County Comptroller released a report in 2015 denouncing the disparity between the chargeback revenue he received from other counties and what he paid.
That year, Ulster paid over $ 3.1 million and took in $ 78,000.
“The revenues listed above are paltry compared to the amounts spent on chargebacks,” the report said. “This difference is directly related to the small number of non-resident students at UCCC compared to the much larger number of Ulster County residents enrolling in community colleges elsewhere in the state.”
About three-quarters of what the county donated went to colleges in the counties bordering Ulster.
Likewise, most of what Monroe County taxpayers pay for its residents to attend community college elsewhere goes to schools in neighboring counties.
Genesee Community College received $ 2.4 million from Monroe County taxpayers last year, while Ontario County’s Finger Lakes Community College received $ 1.9 million, according to documents provided to CITY by County Monroe.
Opponents of chargebacks have argued that counties whose payments exceed their income – as is the case in Monroe County – must ask themselves why their residents seek education outside their borders and whether their community college is insufficient.
Supporters of chargebacks make a counterargument: If the chargeback system were to go away, what would be fair to ask taxpayers in a county with a popular community college that attracts students from afar to subsidize those students? ?
“You can’t talk about government services without discussing how they’re paid, you’re only telling half the story,” Maffucci said. “It puts people in a difficult position because they want things, but they don’t always want to pay for things. I am clear on one thing: nothing is free, someone pays, one way or another.
Gino Fanelli is a CITY staff writer. He can be reached at (585) 775-9692 or [email protected]