Lawmakers question taxes, service area
BOISE – Lawmakers brought up a longtime sore spot during North Idaho College’s budget hearing at the state Legislature on Tuesday: Why does the Coeur d’Alene community college get so much of its funding from property tax, and why do only Kootenai County residents pay that tax, when NIC serves all five North Idaho Panhandle counties?
“Why do we continue to expand to those counties if they’re not covering the cost of the expansion?” asked Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens.
NIC President Joe Dunlap responded, “We have been charged by the Legislature to serve those five counties. … We have populations that need to be served in those northern counties.” Ethically, the college has an obligation to serve those students, he said.
That could be by online courses and distance learning, Dunlap said, or with outreach centers. “But asking students to come from Bonners Ferry to NIC to attend is not practical – the distance is too long, especially in the winter,” Dunlap said.
Though only Kootenai County pays property tax to support NIC, all counties in the state whose students attend the college pay $500 per academic student per semester to the college from their share of state liquor funds. That’s a 1982 formula, however, and some counties – including Benewah and Shoshone counties in North Idaho – don’t get enough in liquor funds to cover the cost, so they have to dip into their county budgets.
“It certainly may be time for our counties to re-evaluate what makes the most sense,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. “Bonner County might be better served by a property tax, as opposed to the liquor tax.”
Dunlap said he and the heads of Idaho’s two other community colleges, the College of Western Idaho west of Boise and the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls, are working with the Idaho Association of Counties on possible revisions to the liquor tax distribution formula.
NIC has outreach centers in Sandpoint, Bonners Ferry and the Silver Valley, and also provides services in St. Maries and Plummer.
Dunlap, who also addressed the Senate Education Committee on Tuesday, told senators, “NIC is the only college that has one county supporting its tax base. The other two have two counties. … It’s a tension-filled issue, there’s no question about it, but I believe we’ve got a moral obligation to provide that access to our citizens.”
The College of Western Idaho charges property taxes in Ada and Canyon counties, but its service area also includes all or part of eight other counties. The College of Southern Idaho gets property taxes from Twin Falls and Jerome counties, but also serves all or part of eight others.
In 2012, NIC collected $13.4 million in property taxes, 36 percent of its $35.8 million budget from all funding sources. Dunlap said the amount has risen recently due to a mill site purchase.
The other two community colleges are less reliant on property taxes as a funding source.
The College of Western Idaho collected $5.5 million in property taxes, 21 percent of its $26 million budget. The College of Southern Idaho collected $5.2 million, 17 percent of its $31.2 million budget.
Gov. Butch Otter has recommended an 8.9 percent increase in state funding for community colleges next year, to $30.2 million, but the colleges have requested a 41.2 percent increase to $39.2 million. Nearly all of the increase Otter recommended would go to the College of Western Idaho, which has only been open a few years and has seen explosive growth.
NIC requested funds to increase dual credit course offerings for high school students in the region; to expand its Sandpoint outreach center; to open a new Veterans Center; and to improve student services for all its programs. Otter turned down all four requests.
Dunlap told lawmakers he’ll have a major proposal in the future for a sorely needed new professional-technical education center, and the cost will run into the millions. He said, “We’ll have to determine how we’re going to fund that.”
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