Our Views: Blackhawk Tech needs honesty about referendum idea

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Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Families face many holiday spending decisions. How much should we spend on gifts? How much can we donate to charities? Can we afford to fly down to see Grandpa and Grandma?

This holiday season, many families in Rock and Green counties face another spending decision: Does Blackhawk Technical College deserve the right to raise property taxes by up to $4 million—$37 on a house valued at $100,000—per year?

Blackhawk Tech last week mailed surveys to 8,000 registered voters posing that question. If you got the survey, please do not discard it as junk mail. Answer it honestly. Depending on results, voters could face a referendum April 1.

The last thing many property owners want is more hard-earned cash going to taxes. Blackhawk Tech officials, however, make reasonable arguments for more money.

First, when tech colleges for years could levy up to $1.50 per $1,000 in property value, Blackhawk levied below that. Since 2011 when state lawmakers froze tech college levies at 2010 levels, Blackhawk has been operating $1.36 million below what it could have levied under the previous system.

Second, the state has slashed aid to tech colleges by 30 percent. That cost Blackhawk another $1.5 million.

Third, the college has cut $2.3 million since 2010. It suspended its aviation mechanics program, a controversial move that saved $370,000. It cut two deans and other positions to save $372,000. It closed its central-campus day care center to whittle $72,000. It saved more through employee insurance and pension changes.

Fourth, the college increased its tax levy 1.6 percent this year, but that money is helping remodel a new Advanced Manufacturing Training Center, which will open next year in Milton.

Fifth, the college can't just raise tuition because the state's tech college system board sets tuition statewide.

Sixth, the college has an operating budget of $31.62 million this year, and it pulled $2.17 million out of reserves to balance the books. It can't keep dipping and maintain reasonable reserves.

Add it up, and Blackhawk's operational and local property tax revenues sit at the bottom among the state's seven technical colleges with the lowest enrollments. Blackhawk projects annual budget deficits of $3.5 million.

Blackhawk last got approval from voters for a $17.5 million expansion in 2002. That helped the college deal with record enrollment after General Motors and many supplier companies closed and workers streamed into classrooms to learn new careers.

One thing survey respondents must consider is that the request for $4 million more isn't just for one year. It's open-ended. Blackhawk would have the authority annually and indefinitely.

Blackhawk Tech President Tom Eckert says if the college does pose a $4 million referendum and voters approve, it doesn't necessarily mean the college would tax that amount each year. It would, however, give the college flexibility to meet employer needs.

Eckert says the college has been working hard to make BTC a crucial part of this region's economic recovery. It doesn't want to shrink. Instead, it wants to keep being a key economic driver, but the squeeze on operational revenues could hinder that.

Honest survey responses will help Blackhawk know where it stands. Please provide them.

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