The recent controversial decision by Harford Community College officials to raise fees for adult baseball and softball leagues to make the operations of the campus playing fields self-sufficient has become a reflection of budget issues the college has been dealing with in recent years.
"We are creating a plan to make the college financially strong," college President Dennis Golladay said during a conversation with The Aegis newsroom staff Wednesday.
Golladay said college officials are developing measures to ensure money does not have to be drawn from the reserve fund to balance the operating budget, a gradual process that is expected to take three to four years.
Brenda Morrison, vice president for marketing, development and community relations, said Thursday the fund balance is expected to be approximately $10 million when the 2014 fiscal year ends June 30.
It is projected to be reduced to $7.5 million during FY2015 and to $5 million during FY2016, Morrison said.
She noted members of the Board of Trustees are developing a long-term plan to avoid future withdrawals from reserves.
Enrollment has also leveled out and then dropped during the past two to three years after increasing substantially from 2009 to 2011; college officials have raised tuition three times since 2010, and a $12-increase is proposed as part of the fiscal 2015 budget.
Golladay maintained that HCC's tuition is among the lowest in the state for community colleges.
Operations support auxiliary
As college officials have been taking from HCC's reserve fund to balance the operating budget, they have also been taking funds from the operating budget to cover gaps in auxiliary funds that are used to cover revenue and expenses for college functions and facilities not covered in the operating budget.
Such auxiliary operations include the Harford Sports Complex and other athletic fields, the campus bookstore, food service, dance and theatre companies and the APG Federal Credit Union Arena.
College officials have been shifting significant amounts of money in recent years from other auxiliary funds and the operating budget to support the baseball fields.
"There's just one source of revenue, and it's just rental fees for the various fields," Morrison said of the Harford Sports Complex during an interview with The Aegis in April.
The fields that have been part of the controversy during the winter and spring of 2014 include the main turf field, which the college allocated about $1.6 million to renovate, as well as a baseball field on the edge of campus near the Wawa convenience store, plus softball fields.
The funds have gone to improvements to the turf field, the Sports Complex entrance, minor road improvements, lighting and replacing dugout roofs on the softball field, Morrison said Thursday.
Officials have submitted a request to the county for $350,000 for seating as part of the FY2015 budget, which Morrison said was not approved. No other funds have been earmarked for that project, she said.
Golladay, who became HCC president in 2010, said Thomas Run Park's financial woes stem in part from having several financial officers over a period of years who "weren't paying attention" to the drain the operation was causing on the college's overall finances.
"I was directed by the board of trustees to correct this; we are addressing this in a graduated approach" to get the park back to where it is self-sustaining, he explained.
Golladay denied the athletic complex operating losses are symptomatic of bigger financial problems at the college. According to its audited financial report for the 2012-13, HCC posted an operating loss of $3,848,859, compared a loss of $2,135,368 the previous year. The college's general fund had a $1,914,610 deficit in 2012-13.
Golladay noted that one issue the college faces is maintaining adequate cash flows during a period of heavy construction activity on campus, explaining HCC has to pay contractors with college funds before the state and county will reimburse them.
Though the trustees, upon Golladay's recommendation, have raised tuition and student fees for next year, the HCC president said tuition remains "reasonable" and that he and the board are "attentive to the cost of attending HCC," which he said still ranks among the lowest for Maryland community colleges.
Golladay said HCC is "financially stable" and every effort is being made to replenish the reserve fund that has been drawn down, again by a gradual approach over the next three to four years, at which point he said, "I'm confident we will be in good financial shape."
The collection of fields is known as Thomas Run Park to the members of the adult baseball and softball leagues that have played there for about 20 years.
The members of the HCC Board of Trustees stated in 1989, when the park was built on college-owned land with county and state funds, that it should be a self-supporting enterprise, according to Golladay.
The college president told members of the Harford County Council in late April that operating funds have been used "over the years" to support the park, though.
"Prices of the maintenance of the field have gone up, even for something like light bulbs for the night lights" Golladay said.
The Harford Sports Complex took in $89,300 in revenue during the 2013 fiscal year, with expenses of $182,061, according to a profit and loss statement provided by Morrison.
The statement showed revenues and expenses dating back to the 2007 fiscal year, and revenues varied over the years. They were as high as $101,131 in FY2010 and as low as $51,198 in FY2011.
Morrison said revenues vary from year to year, in large part, because of the weather.
The major annual expenses of running the field, which stood at $409,720 for FY2007 and have since come down to a range of $178,000 to $189,000 per year, include employee salaries and benefits, utilities, equipment, supplies and field maintenance.
Struggling with fees
With those costs in mind, athletic officials published in November 2013 rates increases, including from $100 to $600 per game for the turf field and $100 to $200 for the field near Wawa.
The per-game price for the softball fields is $90.
The youth baseball league Ripken Baseball pays $25,000 a year to use the college fields, according to budget documents for the 2014 fiscal year.
The operators of three adult baseball leagues, including the Susquehanna League, the Over 30 League and the Over 40 League, were furious over increases they feared could price them out of using the fields, and took their case to the media and state legislators after unsuccessful negotiations with college administrators.
They were able to get the rates down to $150 for the turf field for two years, and an agreement from Golladay's office to revisit the fee structure in two years. They will pay $100 to use the field near Wawa in 2014 and $115 to use it during 2015.
Golladay said during his Aegis interview that college officials still want the community adult leagues to be able to use the fields, hence the name Harford Community College.
"It's part of our name, and we want to be community-centric," he said.
Morrison said the published rates of $600, $200 and $90 remain in effect for other users of the fields, and they have been rented on about 20 occasions for single games this year.
Softball league operators are also working with the college, which one league official described as a frustrating process.
Kathy Balsamo, of Aberdeen, is with the U.S. Specialty Sports Association; she assigns games and umpires, helps with scheduling and runs tournaments in the Harford County area.
She said in a recent interview that the per-game price has been lowered to $72 for a seven-week season that includes one to two games per week.
If the league plays one game a week, they will pay a minimum of $504 for a season, not including fees for umpires, equipment and insurance.
Balsamo said the league used to pay a flat fee of $450 for the seven weeks.
"For people that are raising families... that's outrageous for us," she said of the new costs.
Council gets involved
Councilwoman Mary Ann Lisanti spoke with Golladay after learning about the situation facing league operators.
"My desire is to work with him to ensure that the community has the opportunity to have an affordable recreational opportunity at the college," she said recently.
Lisanti said she plans to "keep communicating" with Golladay to ensure the agreements with the leagues are "long term."
Golladay acknowledged before the council that mistakes had been made.
"The mistake we made was that we gave the impression that we wanted to collect an increase in fees all at once instead of in a graduated approach," he said. "Quite rightly, the adult baseball leagues and the softball leagues were very concerned about that."
Golladay noted that "the mistake some of the leagues made was not coming to me first and directly to sit down and discuss" their concerns.
"You identify a problem, you sit down and talk it out, you can find a solution, and we did," he said.