January 26, 2011 in Idaho

NIC President: State cuts could hike N. Idaho property taxes

By The Spokesman-Review
Betsy Russell photo

North Idaho College President Priscilla Bell tells legislative budget writers on Wednesday that NIC’s enrollment has soared, but state support for the college would drop down to 2001 levels under the governor’s proposed budget for 2012, which calls for a further 1.7 percent cut on top of earlier decreases. That forces the college to rely more on local property taxes and student tuition and fees, Bell said.
(Full-size photo)

BOISE - Falling state funding for higher education could lead to higher property taxes in North Idaho, lawmakers were warned Wednesday as they heard a budget presentation from North Idaho College.

Priscilla Bell, NIC president, said the Coeur d’Alene community college has seen dramatic growth: Student enrollment, measured by total head count, has soared from about 3,500 when she started at the college in 2007 to some 6,700 this spring. “We’ve almost doubled our head-count in the four years I’ve been here,” Bell said.

But at the same time, state funding for NIC has been dropping. Under the governor’s proposed budget, “By fiscal year 2012 it will be at 2001 levels.”

Because NIC is funded by local property taxes as well as student tuition and fees and state funds, the falling state support will impact both property taxes and student fees, on which, Bell said, “We have to rely more and more.”

No decision has been made as yet on property tax levies for the college next year, but Bell said the college has statutory authority to increase its levy by 3 percent a year, and it’s done so every year she’s been at the college.

Student tuition and fees also have risen every year, though the impact has been diffused because of the college’s shift over two years to a per-credit basis for its tuition. During the shift, that’s meant bigger increases for part-timers than for full-time students. “So now when we do a tuition increase, it will be the same percentage across the board for all students,” Bell said.

Since 2001, NIC’s student enrollment has grown by 106 percent, Bell told lawmakers, and property taxes to support the college have grown 112 percent.

Gov. Butch Otter’s budget proposal for Idaho’s community colleges next year calls for an additional 1.7 percent cut in state support, on top of the earlier decreases.

Now, Bell said, “Full-time faculty are teaching on average two classes more than their normal load every semester. On the nonfaculty side, we have not increased our staff for several years.” That means, she said, that “the same number of staff struggle to meet the needs of more and more students.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, said, “As with the entire budget, I think the governor tried his best to meet the financial hardships that we have. We’re all trying to come to grips with what the numbers are - we’ll do the best we can.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked Bell if the college is seeing more students fail and drop out, given budget and staffing struggles. Bell’s answer: No. In fact, NIC’s retention rates remain above the state average and above the national average, she said. That may be partly because people can’t find jobs to move on to, she said, but it also may be related to NIC’s stepped-up efforts to retain students and get them to finish their degree or program.

New Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise, said he was surprised to learn that the college provides some customized work force training for local employers. “There was a time when companies would train their own work force,” Toryanski said, “and it sounds as if the taxpayer is now training the work force for the private sector. … How long has that been the trend?”

Bell responded that there is some federal funding specifically for that, but, “The employers also have contributed, and in many cases pay completely for training for their particular company.” Bell said that when she arrived at NIC, she found that some work force training programs were operating at a loss; she put a stop to that, so that all now are at least self-supporting and most generate some funds for the college to cover overhead costs.

“We’re happy to fill that need, but we’re not happy to fill that need at the expense of our local taxpayers and students,” Bell said.

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