The roller coaster cycles of financial triumph and despair at Harford Community College are reminiscent of the old movie serial cliff-hangers that kept you coming back to see the next installment, even when you knew how it would turn out.
So it's a good bet that the announcement of further budget cuts from Annapolis will prompt the college to renew its baleful prediction of staff reductions, tuition increases and enrollment restrictions.
Just weeks ago, the outlook was much brighter. HCC trustees awarded a 5 percent pay raise to President Richard J. Pappas and a 4 percent increase to three vice presidents, funded by a surplus attributed to a 28 percent rise in tuition last year.
In last month's chapter, however, Mr. Pappas was seen pleading poverty, warning of service cuts, hinting at layoffs and delaying equipment purchases because of anticipated state aid reductions. At the same time, plans for a $200,000 campus pizza parlor and bookstore were announced.
All that followed the July episode in which Dr. Pappas declared a "moral decision" to award pay raises to all employees and further step-increases for more than half of them; along with a state-imposed penalty for violating its no-raise policy, the decision will cost the college $465,000. Other Harford county and public schools employees saw their pay frozen for the second straight year.
The time has come for the college to sort out its priorities and end the financial theatrics. As County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann said of the HCC Board of Trustees: "They are more concerned about salary enhancements than they are about the community," noting the cost of a semester at the two-year college has doubled in five years to $1,000.
It's not that the pay raises will finance lavish lifestyles for the people who work at HCC; Mr. Pappas will probably spend his $4,000 increase on Maalox alone, for having to vigorously defend it. And the HCC staffers got no raises last year even as they coped with the vexing problem of escalating enrollments and shrinking state aid.
Nevertheless, the college board and its president are sending the wrong message to the public in a time of belt-tightening. That independent attitude will come back to haunt the institution. The county, after all, provides a third of the school's $16 million operating budget. While HCC officials may dismiss the political impact in making the "proper" decisions on pay, they are sure to learn otherwise when the state and county governments score the next round of fiscal final exams.