By Jake Goodrick
Gillette News Record
Via- Wyoming News Exchange
GILLETTE — The Select Committee on Community College Funding agreed Friday to start working toward drafting a bill that would clarify state statute regarding community colleges and potentially clear the way for the possible creation of Gillette College’s own community college district.
Several parts of the state law, specifically regarding the mill levy requirements for community college districts, needed clarification, said Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, co-chairman of the committee, which is comprised of state senators and representatives.
Under current Wyoming law, a county must tax four mills in order to receive state funding for a community college district, or a share of the community college pie, as it has been framed in recent meetings throughout the Gillette College application process.
But it was unclear to the Select Committee whether taxing four mills, or “up to four mills,” is required to create the district itself — regardless of state funding — and how that would affect future state funding during the accreditation process.
“It does not allow for state general funding until the four mills are assessed,” said Sandy Caldwell, executive director of the Wyoming Community College Commission. “But until the accreditation is received, can they have a lesser amount? We’re trying to get a good answer to that.”
Accreditation is typically a five-year process, but given Gillette College’s existing “robust” campus and infrastructure, Caldwell said it could potentially complete the process in four years, minimum.
The lack of clarity in the law frustrated some on the Select Committee during a meeting Friday at the Gillette College Pronghorn Center.
“I think the statute is duplicitous, it says one thing here, it says another thing over here. And putting it all together … Chapter 21 is a mess,” Wasserburger said.
“What I thought it said is if you receive no state funds, you can levy less than four mills. Is that correct? Or, essentially we’re waiting for the Attorney General’s opinion.”
The Select Committee and WCCC have been waiting to receive a prior interpretation of the statute made in the past that is believed to clarify some of the discrepancies, they said during the meeting.
“I think we’ve been trying to locate it for two months. It doesn’t make sense to me. Either it exists or it doesn’t exist. Either they have it or they don’t,” said Rep. Bob Nicholas, R-Cheyenne, committee co-chairman.
“I’m curious about why it’s so hard to come up with that.”
The committee agreed to draft and send a letter to the state Attorney General in order to clarify their request, in addition to drafting its own legislation to address their own questions about the statute.
Rep. Eric Barlow, R-Gillette, recommended two bills be drafted by the committee.
One bill would make changes to the statutes that have been a sticking point for a lot of the discussion around forming a new district.
He suggested clarifying how many mills are required to form a new district, considering service areas — counties without community college districts in them — assessing sales taxes as alternatives to counties relying on mill levies and allowing different districts to adjust their own tuition rates, which he said are now controlled by the state.
“If there are ambiguities in statute and we’re trying to rely on (Attorney General) opinions that we can’t find, let’s actually have discussion about those issues and clarify them so that we don’t have to rely on opinions that we’re not even sure exist,” Barlow said.
The other suggested bill would propose the formation a new community college district, so as to be prepared if the WCCC approves the application to form a new community college district in Campbell County.
“If the community college commission approves the district formation application then we would have a bill ready to do that,” Barlow said. “If they don’t approve that for whatever reason, we would both have a bill ready and be able to examine the wheres and why nots.”
Because the Select Committee was created by the Management Council, it does not have the authority to sponsor legislation, said Anna Mumford, operations administer of the Legislative Services Office.
Any bill drafted would be a recommendation to another committee, she said, emphasizing the need to ensure enough time for it to complete that process.
Cyclone Drilling CEO Paul Hladky, speaking as part of the Campbell County Community College Task Force, said the county is in a unique position in regard to funding its potential college district.
“To be eligible for the state appropriations, we are acquired to assess the four mills,” Hladky said during the meeting. “And if we assess those four mills in Campbell County, the state appropriations won’t be needed.”
Gillette College’s district’s annual budget would be about $15.1 million, he said. Based on the county’s current value, four mills would generate about $16.8 million. Based on future projections, which expect the county’s assessed valuation to decline, four mills would bring about $14 million.
With tuition and fees, Hladky said that would be enough to cover the budget without state appropriations.
He proposed a proportional approach, where county’s would be allowed to tax fewer than the currently required four mills, and receive state appropriations based on however many mills they tax and the amount of money that accounts for.
“If we chose to assess fewer mills, maybe two, we would receive ‘X’ amount, some sort of proportional amount to the mills that you are assessing,” Hladky said.
“This solution would allow the districts that currently tax that full amount to continue to get their full state appropriations, but still allows districts to allow a proportional share that don’t need all four mills.”
Because of Campbell County’s high assessed value relative to other counties in the state, he emphasized the need for a change in state statute that would account for the county’s unique standing.
“We’re kind of being hamstrung here where we want to be our own district, fiscally afford to be our own district, but it would put undue burden on industry and businesses to assess that,” he said.
A recent budget cut at the state level, in part, led to NWCCD cutting its sports programs and Gillette College and Sheridan College in June, which in turn led to the push for Gillette College to leave its district and form a community college district of its own.
With Gov. Mark Gordon declaring that another 10% state budget cut is on its way, there remain many questions about budgeting.
“One of the things that we need to do is try and address every one of these funding issues,” Wasserburger said. “We know that those issues aren’t going to be popular but nonetheless, they must be addressed.”
Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs, asked how Gillette College leaving the district would impact NWCCD financially.
Gillette Advisory Board Chairman Robert Palmer explained that overhead costs — such as software infrastructure, IT and HR departments — that are now shared by both colleges would have to be paid by each district separately. The cost for Gillette college could range from $5 million to $5.9 million.
Wasserburger said that money flows through the district to Gillette College, suggesting that the FTE and headcount money distributed to the colleges would not drastically affect either school in the event of them separating.
“The money flows with the students and the money will continue to flow with the students,” he said.
NWCCD President Walter Tribley provided budgeting context and a relatively grim outlook at what may come from the next round of budget cuts.
“If we bring it on as its own college, we need to make sure that it’s healthy,” Tribley said. “Like a child in our family. Not just its first two or three years, maybe some folks locally in the county or otherwise may have one-time funds to make sure it gets up and running, but we need to ensure that it’s well funded into the future.”
He said it would be an easier decision to make if the state and colleges were operating in a better financial context, but that the reduced funding is already stretching thin the pre-existing community college districts.
“We are going to spiral down if all we do is keep cutting,” he said. “We can’t cut ourselves out of a budget deficit, that next 10%, which I’ve been put on notice is coming, is $2.3 million. Over 900,000 for Gillette, and $1.3 million for Sheridan.”
“It gets real, real challenging.”
Gillette College does not have a vote on the NWCCD Board of Trustees, which is something Tribley acknowledged is a problem.
Whether in the form of state budget cuts, determining how many mills to assess or how to split up a shrinking community college pie, the push to form a new community college district is coming at a financially turbulent time for Wyoming.
“If we could find funding to bring on the college, help the state move forward,” Tribley said, “I would ask ‘why not?’”