North Idaho College officials were clear Tuesday in their message to state lawmakers: They need $4.3 million to renovate Seiter Hall but not a cent to purchase the waterfront mill site next door to expand the campus.
A charter bus hauled members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which continues its summer meeting today, from the University of Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene center, through the Stimson mill and along the Spokane River to the NIC campus.
NIC hopes to fund a proposed education corridor using local money, including college reserve funds and forgone taxes. The college needs state help to fix up Seiter Hall, the old science building.
State Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, said none of the lawmakers on the bus raised questions about the college’s proposal to spend $10 million to purchase property for an education corridor. He said that’s more of a local squabble than a statewide debate.
Some lawmakers, including Post Falls Reps. Bob Nonini and Frank Henderson, neither of whom was on the tour, oppose the idea. Other residents dislike NIC’s plan to collect an additional $2.4 million in forgone taxes to help with the down payment – that’s money the college could have collected from taxpayers in the past, but chose not to.
Before boarding the bus, state Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, joked to NIC spokesman Kent Propst about the situation.
“You’re going to try to sell us on that waterfront,” Eskridge said, receiving a nod of agreement from Propst. “That’s a lot of tax property being taken off the rolls.”
Opponents dislike that NIC’s purchase would remove 17 acres of prime residential and commercial waterfront property from the property tax rolls. Supporters argue expanding education opportunities in North Idaho would add more value than what would be collected in taxes.
Lawmakers also toured the narrow, winding corridors of Seiter Hall, which ceased being the science building when NIC opened the Meyer Health Sciences Building in 2005.
Seiter Hall, built in 1974, has cement floors and no way to support new technology. The classrooms are described as echo chambers. The college has asked the state for renovation dollars since 2005.
Earlier in the day, lawmakers toured the UI Research Park in Post Falls and received the latest update on the state budget. May’s preliminary general fund revenues are $7.8 million short but overall the state has a project $40.7 million surplus. That’s down from April’s surplus of an estimated $60 million.
Legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith told the committee that it’s a “sigh of relief” and that most states, not just Idaho, are nervous about revenue forecasts with the current unstable economic client.
Eskridge added that he fears high gas prices, hitting almost $4 per gallon, will hurt tourism and ultimately state revenues.