February 25, 2013

In My Opinion: CCC efforts to balance budget


---- — An ancient Chinese proverb says, “May you live in interesting times.” Whether this is a blessing or a curse depends on us.

These are interesting times. Clinton and other community colleges are more prominent than ever before. We have been asked to provide universal access to higher education, to educate citizens, to build a modern technical workforce, to support economic growth and to improve the quality of life in our regions.

Increasingly, we are expected to provide for the public good, but we face economic constraints that make it increasingly difficult for the public to provide the necessary resources.

As a result of the global economic crisis that began a few years ago, students have found that a college education is more essential than ever, yet also more expensive than ever.

Our county sponsor faces unfunded mandates of its own, along with a 2 percent property-tax cap that limits its ability to provide additional funding.

State support for New York’s community colleges has decreased by more than 25 percent in real terms and is now at the same level as a decade ago. Meanwhile, higher education salaries, wages, benefits and other operational expenses continue to rise faster than the rate of inflation.

Clinton is a financially viable institution of higher education. We continue to make progress on our 2012-2017 strategic plan, despite the economy.

Like almost every other community college in the state, we have been called upon in recent years to use some of our reserves as we absorb the precipitous drop in state aid that occurred between 2010 and 2012.

We have reduced expenses in many areas of our operation. We have cut non-personnel expenses, reduced the size of our support staff through attrition, slashed equipment costs by 35 percent, converted to more economical energy systems, developed new revenue streams and frozen salaries for our senior management.

As we take these steps, we strive to preserve the academic core of our college. Even so, we must take additional steps now to ensure the long-range health of the institution.

Nearly 85 percent of Clinton’s annual operating budget is dedicated to faculty and staff salaries and benefits. These individuals are some of the best in the profession.

Up to this point, we have made less painful cuts in non-personnel areas. However, the magnitude of the challenge remains. It is now necessary to consider adjustments in the largest portion of our budget: our human resources.

If we do nothing, our personnel costs will continue to grow by hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. These include contractual obligations for salary and wage increases, health care and retirement costs, none of which is directly under the control of the college.

We are faced with an unsustainable situation, precisely in these times when we most need to invest in our economic future.

Like public and private organizations everywhere, we must make some difficult decisions. In order to balance our budget, we must look for ways to reduce the rate of cost increases or trim the overall size of our workforce. Clearly, the former is preferable; it has less impact on our students.

Nonetheless, the administration and the Board of Trustees were bound by a Dec. 31 contractual deadline to make the difficult decision to eliminate certain faculty and staff positions, effective Sept. 1, 2013.

No one is happy about the potential reduction of faculty and staff, and we are actively pursuing alternative solutions that may allow for a better outcome.

Meanwhile, we will always look for innovative ways to ensure Clinton Community College always plays an important role in the economic future of our region.

During these interesting times, we have to work especially hard to balance our budget. But the rewards for our hard work have the potential to strengthen our college, if we seek constructive solutions to the problems that face us.

These constructive pursuits will enable us to accomplish our mission for years to come.

John Jablonski is president of Clinton Community College in Plattsburgh.