Tuesday, August 19, 2008

That Hurt

Last week I was in a meeting with the college controller – the money guy – who mentioned that this July’s gas and electric bill for the college was forty percent higher than last July’s.  (And this isn’t one of the really huge cc’s, either.)  Over the course of a year, that’s roughly half a million dollars extra on what, in the short term, is really a non-optional expense.
The increase was almost entirely at the ‘rate’ level, rather than the ‘use’ level.  Which means that unless we have a really mild winter, we’re hosed.  And while any given winter may or may not be relatively mild, over the years, there will be some nasty ones.
Since we aren’t in a part of the country that’s awash in money – Wyoming is looking better and better – we can’t just dip into the magical replenishing money pot and either pay the bills without incident or rebuild the campus to be greener.  Yes, we consider energy efficiency on those rare occasions when we can build, but in between, there are real limits to what we can realistically do. (This is especially true given the age of many of the main buildings.)  And the weather will do what it will do.
Community colleges generally are in an awkward position when it comes to energy use.  Most cc’s don’t have dorms, which is both good and bad.  It’s good in the sense that we have fewer buildings to heat, cool, and maintain, but it’s bad in the sense that a true measure of our carbon footprint includes students commuting to and from campus.  (In four years in the dorms at Snooty Liberal Arts College, I never had a car, but I never missed a class.)  We generally don’t have the massive athletics facilities or student life compounds, either.  What we do have is essential, and therefore devilishly hard to cut.  And since our per-student aid (and tuition) is much lower than our counterparts’, our extra efficiency carries no payoff.  It’s simply assumed as a baseline.  When you’re already running with minimal slack, external shocks are that much harder to absorb.
(To make matters worse, our operating aid is actually being cut at the same time.  Income down, expenses up.  Double ouch.  And don’t even get me started on health insurance…)
This kind of money is particularly hard to come by, since it doesn’t typically attract the attention of philanthropists.  (“These BTU’s brought to you by…”)  It has to come out of the operating budget, which is the same budget that pays salaries (and repels donors).  We can’t float bond issues for operating expenses.  Politicians are sometimes willing to throw ‘capital’ money our way – that is, construction – but operating budgets are largely considered our problem.  How, exactly, we’re supposed to use those buildings goes unaddressed.
Administrators catch a lot of flak for championing online classes, but honestly, if we were to move the Saturday classes online and shut down the classroom buildings on Saturdays, that would save a meaningful chunk of change.  It’s not ideal, of course, but neither is cutting a half-dozen positions to pay the gas bill.