Officials say Blackhawk Tech referendum will increase opportunities

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Nick Crow
Saturday, August 2, 2014

JANESVILLE—Voters will decide Tuesday, Aug. 12, if Blackhawk Technical College can raise its operational budget by $4 million a year.

The referendum to boost the school's operational levy, the first referendum of its kind for technical colleges in the state, would increase opportunities at the college, officials said. Previously, schools had only asked for capital improvement funding during referendums that paid for specific projects.

The Gazette sat down with President Tom Eckert and Kelli Cameron, director of the foundation and alumni association at the college, to discuss where the college is financially and why they believe a referendum is in the best interest of the school.

Q: Why does BTC need this referendum?

Eckert: "The history of it is that in 2011 we were cut $1.5 million in direct state aid, which is approximately 30 percent of the state aid that we get. At the same time, a cap was placed on our local operational levy authority, meaning that we would have to stay at the same dollar level as we had in 2010.

"As a consequence, that dealt us a blow as far as the budget goes. We were caught at the lowest level of spending, the least amount per student, among the technical college system."

Receiving no additional funding has made it more difficult for the school to do business. The school has cut $4.9 million from its budget since 2011, he said.

"That resulted in some lay-offs, some positions going unfilled, some program closures and some service discontinuation. Sometimes we partially close programs by closing an additional section. We are down to the point where we don't want to make any more cuts. We've made a lot. We really think we've cut to the bone and then some."

"So what we'd like to do is go the other direction, now. We'd like to have some operating funds that would allow us to open up some new sections for existing programs, explore new programs that look like they may have career possibilities for folks, more part-time, evening options, that sort of thing.

"This is the reason why we're doing this. We're really asking the taxpayer to support us in opening up new opportunities for more of our citizens within our service area."

Q: What programs would you like to expand if the referendum is approved?

Eckert: "Some good examples are welding, computer numeric control, industrial mechanic and electromechanical. Probably more part-time opportunities in almost every area, every cluster of programs we have."

Eckert said the college will look at also adding more evening, weekend, GED and English as a second language course options.

"Anywhere and everywhere we can expand that's practical, so that people who are working would have a chance to get schooling."

Q: How did you arrive at the $4 million figure?

Eckert: "The $4 million figure was calculated on what we would need to open up more sections. Our vice president sat down and in detail mapped out exactly where the expansion he would like to do would take place both with instruction and with services."

Eckert said the college would add a grant writer and grant manager position if the referendum passes and add staff to maintenance and IT.

Q: Why ask for an annual increase rather than an extra $4 million for one year?

Eckert: "First of all, the way the law was written according to interpretation by attorneys, says that's the only option you have. You have the option to raise the base. But I will say, even if I had that opportunity, to make the kind of changes I need and have them ongoing, a one-time amount doesn't give me anything. I can't build on a one-time amount."

To hire quality people, the college has to be able to offer a career, he said.

Q: Wisconsin Act 145 appropriates additional state aid for technical colleges. For Blackhawk Tech, that means 45 percent of funding will come from state aid, 28 percent from tuition and fees, 21 percent from property taxes and the rest from grants and other revenue.

What's changing for taxpayers because of Act 145?

Eckert: "It's really important to understand that Act 145 did not result in more money for the technical colleges. It's just a change of source for the money. Act 145 is $406 million from excess revenue that was placed against the local taxes of all 16 technical colleges. That resulted in about $10 million for us that offset what we'd be taking from local taxes. Again, it's dollar-for-dollar swap, not additional money."

Eckert said property taxes going to Blackhawk Tech will be 26.7 percent less on average because of the change. Taxpayers will pay less in property taxes to Blackhawk Tech regardless of whether the referendum passes, he said.

Q: That's just this year then? What if the state changes the amount it provides in future years?

Eckert: "If the state continues to supply that money, it will be down there again next year. We can't predict what the state is going to do, but we hope that that money continues to be supplied because we think it's fairer for the taxpayers."

Q: If the referendum passes, how will that affect the amount of property taxes paid to Blackhawk Tech by the owner of a $100,000 home? How much if it fails?

Cameron: If the referendum fails, the owner of a $100,000 home would pay $76 less in property taxes than last year, Cameron said.

If the referendum passes, the owner of the same home would pay $51 less in property taxes than last year, Cameron said.

Q: Where would BTC be financially if the referendum fails?

Eckert: "A lot of getting ourselves squared away in the budget was, as I mentioned before, program closure, elimination of some positions, not filling some positions. We've also borrowed from ourselves on occasion, and we've used reserves.

"One of the things that we don't want to do is continue that practice. We can't. Simply, it will get to a point where what we need to have in reserves to operate would be affected, so we don't want to do that anymore."

Eckert said if the referendum fails, the school's programming would remain the same size, but staff could be cut, he said.

"We will continue to address quality and continue to do all of the things that we can within the money we have. I want people to understand that the referendum is not about repairing damage, it's about offering opportunity.

"It's about growth opportunity.

"It's about allowing more people more access to us.

"It's an investment in the future in allowing us to train more people so more people can get out there and fill those unfilled jobs."

Q: Why place it on the August ballot?

Eckert: "We did it for one reason: We thought the noise of the gubernatorial election (in November) would drown us out, and we really want people to understand what we're doing and why."

The college wanted to share its message without getting drowned out by other elections, Eckert said.

Cameron: "We wanted to be able to be transparent. We wanted to get the message to people, and we wanted them to pay attention. We can all relate to when we go into a November election. No one wants to turn on his or her TV. You don't want to listen to the radio. It's just overwhelming."

Q: What leads you to believe now is a good time?

Eckert: "We seem to be getting a positive response. We did a survey, and it was fairly positive. We seem to be, not completely, but we seem to be getting good positive feedback from a lot of folks.

"The timing is more associated with the need. We have this need, and we want to fulfill our mission here, and we need some more operating dollars to do that."

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