Daniel Larson: Ingredients to help solve the budget crisis

Mar 31, 2011

Just because New York lawmakers passed a state budget doesn't mean the debate ends.  The Innovation Trail is continuing its series of commentaries about how to get the state's fiscal house in order.  The opinions contained in this commentary are those of Cayuga Community College's Daniel Larson.  His piece is part of the Innovation Trail's "Budget Solutions" series of guest blog posts.

Think you have a good way to fix New York's budget?  Submit it to us and we might use it on the blog

For every dollar appropriated by state and local government in Cayuga Community College, taxpayers will see a return with a cumulative added value of $3.30 in the form of higher tax revenues and avoided social costs attributable to education.

The return on the community college investment nearly doubles the performance of stocks and bonds on the market. My point is this: While we at Cayuga Community College recognize the enormously challenging time New York State is facing, the proposed budget cuts (which drop our funding back to 1999 levels) make no sense economically.

But, instead of simply adding my voice to the cacophony of complaints, I would like to propose a few fiscally healthy choices - a "recipe" for the state to find some savings.

Enjoy some home cooking

Preparing a home-cooked meal for your family is cheaper and healthier than dining at a restaurant.

A family may save time and effort by eating out for dinner, but also it incurs the extra expense (and, often, calories) of those individually prepared meals, which are usually larger portions than an individual should eat. By cooking at home, the family saves money by buying the meal in bulk and by avoiding the restaurant overhead and personnel costs. The family consolidates its meal-time process and trims the fat from its budget. 

Likewise, consolidation of government promises to be an effort worth exploring in more detail. Consolidation of some of New York’s more than 2,300 towns could potentially lead to cost savings through economies of scale, combining functions, eliminating redundancies, and improving efficiencies.

Several villages in New York, including Seneca Falls, Brockport, Williamsville, Sloan, Candor, Victory, and Schuylerville have already started this process, with mixed results at the polling place. The Village of Seneca Falls voted to dissolve, believing the cost-savings from consolidation outweighed the possible downsides. Village of Brockport residents, on the other hand, handily defeated a proposal to dissolve, fearing their services would be eliminated or interrupted. The key here may be finding the balance between consolidation and maintaining “localness.”

The same holds true for school districts, especially in sparsely populated rural areas such as Cayuga County, which serves approximately 11,170 students through 24 public schools in 7 different districts.

Some of the savings are obvious: fewer physical facilities to maintain, streamlining back office operations, and the possibility of less overhead in top-level administrative wages. However, these changes sometimes don’t result in the immediate revenue savings we’d expect, as higher transportation costs (bussing and fuel) and more middle-manager hires absorb what would have initially been considered savings. But the goals of increased efficiency and economies of scale will ultimately save money, so some entities are exploring the benefits of collaboration rather than consolidation.

Create some stone soup

Sometimes the tastiest soups are created when people come together to contribute their ingredients for the good of the whole kettle.

The 30 community colleges within the 64 campus SUNY system are finding that collaboration also has fiscal benefits. While the 34 four-year SUNY campuses are generally governed and financed centrally, the community colleges are more intimately tied to our local county hosts and therefore have their own local operations and processes. At the presidential level, my peers and I are beginning to meet to explore how we might develop regional grouping for purchasing, maintenance, and workforce development opportunities. While we maintain a friendly competition for students, we are talking with the business community about how they might engage with community colleges as a sector. We are exploring workforce development opportunities with a variety of industries that draw on the strengths from across community college campuses. We are partnering to bring our unique programming and services together to better serve our local communities.  

Get more green in your diet

Celebrity surgeon Dr. Oz says to eat (or drink) more green, leafy vegetables.

Improving energy efficiency throughout all state facilities could also generate financial savings and benefit the natural environment. For example, Cayuga Community College installed 126 solar panels on the roof of our Spartan Hall gymnasium, saving 30,000 kilowatt hours of energy per year. We also replaced the outdated lighting system in the gym that took 10 minutes to just to warm up and emit light. The new lights have resulted in a savings of 122,000 kilowatts per year. While the total energy savings only translates to $15,000 a year, that same amount of money could support a semester’s work for eight full-time students at Cayuga, which, if you recall from the opening of this post, would triple the impact of those dollars.

I encourage our state legislators to be smart about their spending and look for the areas that will have the largest return on their investment. Find ways to streamline purchasing, back end operations, and governmental services. Support collaboration and sharing among state-funded entities. Encourage green initiatives and upgrades to facilities.

And, be sure to invite all parties to the table to get their fair share of the pie.

Dr. Daniel Larson is the seventh president of Cayuga Community College.