BOISE — Though it could take eight years to erase its debt, finances at the University of Idaho are turning around, college president Tim White told lawmakers.
“I want you to know that the new leadership team at the University of Idaho are going to be proper and honest stewards of public funds and public trust,” White told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee on Thursday.
The land grant university has been embroiled in a financial crisis worsened by the collapse of its $136 million University Place project in Boise in 2003. The three-building project fell apart amid questions of financial mismanagement, and only one building, the water center, survives. It is now occupied by the Idaho Department of Water Resources, White said, and the U.S. Forest Service and CH2M Hill will be moving in soon.
White said he expects up to $15 million in debt will be paid off over eight years. Meanwhile the school — which currently spends about $6 million more than it takes in — will continue cutting expenses to match income, he said.
House Appropriations Chairwoman Maxine Bell of Jerome said White’s remarks were encouraging.
“I don’t think we could expect it to happen immediately. They didn’t just get in the hole overnight,” Bell said.
Still, Democratic Rep. Margaret Henbest worried that the aggressive cost-cutting would affect students’ ability to earn a degree.
White acknowledged her concern, saying there are more students for every teacher and some classes have waiting lists.
“I would say they’re symptoms today. They’re not liabilities, but if we don’t do something about them, they’ll become liabilities,” he said.
Some of the cost-cutting measures have met “passive and active resistance” from students and faculty, White said.
Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s recommended budget increase of 6.4 percent for colleges and universities is critical for the University of Idaho’s success, White said. If approved by lawmakers, the budget would bring taxpayer support for the University of Idaho, Idaho State University, Boise State University and Lewis-Clark State College to almost $238 million.
“The recommendation for a 6.4 percent increase state investment is significant, and — particularly after the realities of the last several years — essential,” White said.
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