Everything free comes with price

Publisher’s Notebook

It was a typical government response. During a meeting of the Chautauqua County Legislature in Dunkirk at the Clarion Hotel and Conference Center in 2008, a resolution came up to authorize the Sheriff’s Department to have a boat — for free — to patrol the Lake Erie waters for Homeland Security.

Compliments of the federal government, most of the 25-member Legislature spoke in favor of the free addition. One member, however, did not.

Then-county Legislator John Runkle of Stockton attempted to rein in his colleagues by pointing out that once the county took control over this boat, there would be additional costs incurred by the county, including fuel, staffing and maintenance.

But lawmakers were hooked by the word “free.” It passed in an overwhelming majority, which ultimately brought an increase of spending to the county.

Most who have owned a boat usually tell a familiar story of their happy days — when it was purchased and when it was sold. They know the price that comes with being on the water.

This year, the new “free” in our state revolves around state Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s tuition plan. Announced in January alongside Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Excelsior Scholarship aims to benefit more than 940,000 middle class families and individuals making up to $125,000 per year to attend college tuition-free at all public universities in New York state.

“New York is making a major investment in our greatest asset – our people – and supporting the dreams and ambitions of those who want a better life and are willing to work hard for it,” Cuomo said on the day of the announcement of the $163 million program.

During a regional State of the State address in Fredonia on Jan. 19, Brian Stratton, director of the New York Canal Corp., pointed out another reason for our area to support the initiative. About 85 percent of Western New York’s population qualifies.

Two of the institutions that stand to gain are right in our back yard: Jamestown Community College and the State University of New York at Fredonia. Both could use the enrollment additions after seeing a decline in students that is no different than what has happened in recent years at our local school districts.

But the big question remains, and has not truly been answered, is how will something that costs so much be funded?

Some of the answer lies, the governor says, in federal funding from outside New York state. And remember, when you consider tuition that does not include room and board, books and the other costs that come with higher education. Tuition, in the SUNY schools, is $6,470 per year or about 35 percent to 40 percent of the complete total cost for those living on campus.

With so many doubts and questions from the public about the program, Cuomo’s office reached out last week to the local leaders to signify their support for the program. With all of the governor’s gifts to Western New York in the last six years — especially to Buffalo, it’s hard to say no.

So our local leaders did not. Here’s a list of those some of those who support the initiative: Mayor Wilfred Rosas of Dunkirk, Mayor Athanasia Landis of Fredonia, SUNY Fredonia President Dr. Virginia Horvath, Jamestown Community College President Cory Duckworth, Dunkirk Councilman Don Williams, Jamestown Council President Greg Rabb and Jamestown Mayor Sam Teresi.

Make no mistake, the tuition proposal is a political hot potato. If leaders — especially those who head the colleges and universities — fail to back the plan, what response would they get from the governor?

Local elected officials face the same tightrope. How do you say “no” to a governor who one year ago brought plans for 900 jobs to the north county?

Perhaps State Assemblyman Andrew Goodell summed it up best, especially for the SUNY system that has been facing aid cuts from the state in the past decade. “Unless the college professors are doing this as a voluntary service, there is no such thing as free college,” he said last month. “The only question is: Who is paying for it?”

Until that’s settled, there’s reason to be uneasy.

John D’Agostino is the OBSERVER publisher. Send comments to jdagostino@observertoday.com or call 366-3000, ext. 401.