The future of Monroe Community College's downtown campus might become clearer next month, or not.
A year ago, the college's Board of Trustees voted to move MCC out of the Sibley building in downtown Rochester. Board members recommended purchasing and renovating buildings in Kodak's State Street complex, transforming that property into the new Damon City Campus.
But funding for the $72 million project depends on the County Legislature, which must approve borrowing the money. Republicans and Democrats expect that the first bond resolution will come up for a vote in December. But here's the catch: the legislation may not get the votes it needs to pass. Legislature Democrats say they have questions and concerns about the proposal, and they have the ability to block the bond.
MCC officials say the renovated Kodak site would be a better environment for students and faculty. They say that it'd be safer, that the college would be able to build better classrooms and public spaces, that the school would have vastly more space to work with, and that the site would have dedicated parking. They also say that buying and renovating the Kodak space is $10 million cheaper than buying and renovating the school's space in the Sibley building.
But Mayor Tom Richards, who does not have a direct say in the campus's location, wants MCC to stay in the Sibley building. He says the campus and its students would benefit, and benefit from revitalization efforts at Midtown.
Richards has been the most vocal critic of the Kodak move, raising questions about everything from the school's space needs to potential complications from Kodak's bankruptcy. And he's said it's easier for students to get to the Sibley building than to the State Street complex.
Legislature Democrats share many of Richards' questions and concerns.
"We're trying to do our due diligence and get the answers that we need," says Carrie Andrews, a Democratic legislator and the caucus's leader. (Monroe Community College President Anne Kress was scheduled to brief Democrats about the proposal early this week.)
Republican Majority Leader Anthony Daniele says his caucus hasn't done an internal vote, but its members do appear to support MCC's plan to move. That's not to say that Republicans lack concerns, but they have been less vocal than Democrats. MCC spokesperson Cynthia Cooper says that college officials have been contacted by legislators on both sides of the aisle.
Republicans have focused less on issues around Midtown revitalization and more on financial concerns. Daniele says the Legislature's role is primarily fiscal and not to decide where the MCC campus should go.
The underlying funding issue is technical, but crucial. To buy and renovate the Kodak property, the college needs to borrow money. But the county funds the college, so the borrowing has to be done through county government, which issues the bond.
But a bond measure requires approval from two thirds of the Legislature, which means 20 out of 29 legislators have to vote in favor. The Legislature has 18 Republicans and 11 Democrats, so at least two Democratic votes are needed to pass the bond. And that's if all Republicans vote in favor.
Democrats have a list of concerns regarding the project, a primary one being Kodak's bankruptcy and its effect on the MCC deal. But MCC officials downplay that concern.
"The county and the college have engaged bankruptcy lawyers to give us an informed opinion on that," says MCC's Cooper. "The guidance we're getting is that this should not be an issue for us in terms of the sale of the property."
But Democrat Legislator Ted O'Brien says his worries about the bankruptcy go beyond the sale of the site. For example, the deal would give MCC shared use of a Kodak-owned parking lot. But what happens to that agreement, O'Brien asks, if Kodak doesn't exit bankruptcy as expected? (Last week, a judge gave the company until February to file a plan to emerge from bankruptcy.)
Utilities are another issue. The properties MCC would buy from Kodak include utility infrastructure for the whole complex. Democrats are concerned that MCC could get stuck maintaining the infrastructure or essentially acting as a utility company. College officials say the utilities are part of ongoing negotiations with Kodak.
Dems also question why college officials want to purchase significantly more space than is occupied by the current campus. But Cooper says the college wants to grow some of its programs.
Some Democratic legislators also say that the Sibley building is a more convenient location for students who rely on buses; a new downtown bus station is being built next to the Sibley building. But many students would have to transfer buses in order to reach the Kodak site, says Legislator Cynthia Kaleh.
Republicans want more accurate cost comparisons and data, Daniele says. They want to know the cost of fixing up and remaining in the Sibley building versus buying and renovating the Kodak site, he says. They also want to know how much the move would cost, and they want five to 10 years of operating cost projections for the sites, Daniele says.
The Legislature typically approves borrowing for its capital improvement plan the same night it approves the budget every year. This year's budget vote is on Tuesday, December 11.
If the usual approach is used, borrowing for the MCC downtown campus proposal will be lumped in with other CIP borrowing for things like road and water infrastructure maintenance.
But that leaves a glaring, unanswered question pertaining to the downtown MCC campus proposal: What happens if the bond doesn't pass? It could delay or halt construction projects planned for 2013. But it would probably also have implications for the campus location. O'Brien says Democrats need to evaluate whether voting down the bond creates a risk that the downtown campus would be eliminated entirely.
Cooper wouldn't say what college officials would do if the bond vote fails, just that there's no set process dictating a next step. She says college officials are focused on getting the legislators to see their vision for the Kodak site and trying to get the votes needed to pass the bond.
Democrats say they want the MCC proposal to get its own vote, so if enough legislators aren't on board, they won't hold up other routine yet important projects. They've asked the Republican leadership to break the proposals apart. O'Brien says Republicans haven't shot the idea down, but they also haven't agreed to it.
Daniele says one possibility could be amending the bond resolution's language so that it's not site specific. That would require legislators to pass an amendment.
Mayor Richards says including the MCC project with the bonding resolution for the county's other capital projects creates an artificial problem. There's nothing stopping the county from making the MCC bonding its own vote, he says.
"This whole process is unnecessarily confrontational," Richards says.