The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

May 5, 2013

Costly classrooms: College allocation reduced

EBENSBURG — Justin Capouellze works part time at the Market Basket in Richland Township, doing anything that needs done. He also works as  a landscaper and at the commercial site of Stuver’s Nursery.

Capouellze, 20, a 2011 graduate of Greater Johnstown High School, knows how hard it is to earn money when so much has to go toward his college tuition.

His task will be even harder with an anticipated decision by the Cambria County Commissioners.

Effective with the 2014 budget, the commissioners plan to reduce the county’s allocation to Penn Highlands Community College, the school Capouellze attends.

“I’ve got to go back and look at my budget and find out where that money is going to come from,” Capouellze said.

“I’m worried about increasing my student loan debt.”

The commissioners recently notified the Penn Highlands board of directors that the county’s 2014 allocation will be reduced by $150,000 from the annual contribution of

$1.2 million, which includes $300,000 toward debt service.

The contribution does not come from Cambria County’s general fund, but rather a 1-mill dedicated tax imposed by county leaders about two decades ago when what was termed “The College Without Walls” was established.

Funds withheld from the college will be used for what Cambria County commissisoners Douglas Lengenfelder and Mark Wissinger are terming “economic development.”

Wissinger said the money is needed to cover costs associated with the planned Cambria County Economic Development Authority and setting up a foreign trade zone, which is designed to foster job creation.

“Last year, in the 2013 budget, to get enough money for economic development, we kind of robbed Peter to pay Paul,” Wissinger said.

The $150,000 cut, according to Frank Asonevich, Penn Highlands president, translates into a per student tuition hike of $75 per semester, or $150 per year. At this point, the only way to make up the $150,000 is by turning to the students, he said.

“I’m concerned if they’re going to look at the college budget and see it as a resource for other projects,” Asonevich said.

Future funding cuts to the college are not planned, said Lengenfelder who also is a member of the community college board. Prior to his election as commissioner, he taught at the college.

Lengenfelder views the funding reduction as indictive of what is happening everywhere in Cambria County government.

County offices have been forced to cut their expenses by 4.75 percent, something all are in the process of doing. The cut to the college, Lengenfelder said, is just more than 1 percent of its total annual budget of more than $12 million.

Those objecting to the cut point out it amounts to more than 12 percent of the total contribution from the county, far higher than the percentage of cuts in other budgetary areas.

Despite this, the $1.2 million the county is giving the college annually is significantly higher than what started out at $500,000 20 years ago, Wissinger said.

The total has more than doubled over the years, in part due to the action in 2005 to set the assessed ratio at 100 percent, up from the 50 percent of a property’s assessed valuation, Wissinger said.

County records show that in 2004, the college was receiving the revenue generated from

1.5 mills. Following the percentage change it was decreased to .75 mill and in 2010 increased to 1 mill.

This year, Cambria is facing a chicken and egg question – which comes first, Lengengelder said.

“With this, we will have a dedicated $150,000 a year for economic development, something the county has never had before,” he said. “It’s great to have an education, but if you have no jobs, it becomes an additional problem.”

A similar amount was carved out of the 2013 budget earmarked for economic development at the Johnstown/ Cambria County Airport.

The scope of Lengenfelder’s plans were larger than the all-volunteer airport authority wanted to tackle and the full $150,000 is still intact after Lengenfelder, in recent days, returned a $75,000 check to the county, Cambria County Controller Edward Cernic Jr. said.

Lengenfelder said the money will be used this year as efforts progress to form the authority, geared at economic development, and the $150,000 from the college will replace that county allocation.

Formed in 1993 as Cambria County Community College by commissioners Wissinger, Kathy Holtzman and the late Ted Baranik and later changed to Penn Highlands, the college has branch campuses in Richland, Ebensburg, Somerset and more recently Huntingdon.

The college is one of Holtzman’s most significant accomplishments.

“It’s my baby,” said Holtzman, who serves as vice president of the board. “It’s grown beyond my imagination.”

Holtzman said she has mixed emotions about the funding cut.

“I hate to see that happen, but I understand the position the commissioners are in,” she said. “We have to take our hit here, everybody is getting cut.”

Commissioner Thomas Chernisky said a vote on the initiative to cut the college’s contribution is a long way off.

“A lot can happen between now and the end of the year,” he said. “I’m not going to be supporting it, but we’ll vote at budget time.”

Penn Highlands is one of the fastest growing colleges in the state, Chernisky said, and deserves kudos for all it has accomplished in tough times.

“The college is an investment and a real economic generator for our county. We need a trained workforce,” he said.

Passing the cost of the cut onto the students is a move Holtzman is opposed to. She plans to come to an August meeting between the college board and Penn Highlands Foundation with some ideas about bringing the business community on board.

“I think we have to make up the money in other ways,” she said. “Businesses have an interest in the community college and we need to look for new revenue sources we can tap.”

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