NIC budget details plans for mill-site puchase

Saying it’s a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity, North Idaho College may dip into foregone taxes, pull money from the college’s cash reserves and increase tuition to come up with a down payment on a 17-acre mill site adjacent to campus.

The purchase of Stimson’s DeArmond Mill is the linchpin in creating an Education Corridor spanning from NIC’s campus in the heart of the Fortgrounds neighborhood to University of Idaho’s Coeur d’Alene Campus at Harbor Center.

Discussions of an Education Corridor began more than a decade ago, and talks of NIC purchasing the mill site go back even further. The mill’s recent decision to close down this spring means NIC must act now, NIC trustee Mic Armon said during a board meeting Wednesday.

“This is all starting to move,” he said. “We have to be prepared. We don’t have months or years to wait.”

The college’s proposed budget for next year was unveiled Wednesday, detailing how the college plans to use previously uncollected, or foregone, taxes to come up with $2.4 million toward the $10 million asking price.

For taxpayers, that translates to a 32 percent annual increase in the amount of property taxes paid to NIC – about $33 a year for a home with $200,000 taxable value.

Developer Marshall Chesrown has an option to buy the property and is offering to sell it to the college for $10 million – the same price NIC officials say they were quoted in 2001.

Armon, who voted against using foregone taxes previously to pay for NIC salary increases, said he spoke with a number of people who said if NIC was going to use foregone taxes for anything, it should be for investment in a capital asset.

Some critics say NIC will be taking property off the tax rolls that could be privately developed and contribute to the tax base.

NIC President Priscilla Bell said she believes the investment will be recouped – providing training for jobs in a changing economy and providing greater access to higher education in a state that ranks near the bottom for the number of high school graduates going onto college.

The college is proposing taking $1.5 million from its cash reserves to pay toward the property, along with nearly $400,000 from the college’s operating budget – a figure that includes funds from a tuition and fees increase and money from a projected increase in enrollment.

Ryan Robinson, president of the Associated Students of North Idaho College, spoke in favor of the tuition increase.

“As the quality of education increases, we expect to carry a load of that ourselves,” Robinson said, but he said NIC administration and board members should have sought more student input first.

Robinson said the ASNIC board unanimously supports the Education Corridor.

Several others spoke in favor of the purchase, including Coeur d’Alene Mayor Sandi Bloem and representatives from the University of Idaho, Coeur d’Alene Chamber of Commerce and the Lake City Development Corporation.

Kraig Lysek of the Fortgrounds Homeowner’s Association said the property is “priceless,” and will increase waterfront access for the community.

“If it goes to private ownership, which it will if we don’t buy it, we will lose access,” Lysek said.

Coeur d’Alene resident Gary Ingram was the only member of the public who spoke against the proposal at Wednesday’s meeting.

“I wish I could share your vision for the Education Corridor, but rather I see it as an albatross around the necks of the property taxpayers in Coeur d’Alene,” Ingram said. He said the college was moving too fast and that too many questions are still unanswered.

He said other tax-funded projects were looming, including the need for a new jail and the Coeur d’Alene School District’s proposed $31.1 million School Plant Facilities Levy. Ingram said he’s concerned about the cumulative impact on taxpayers.

Armon said NIC doesn’t have all the answers.

“We’re still investigating,” he said.

A master plan for the Education Corridor and an economic feasibility study are planned for release to the public this month and public workshops are planned, Armon said.

Trustees will vote on the proposed budget – including down payment on the property and the tuition and fees increase – at the board’s May 28 meeting.

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