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Blackhawk Technical College board votes for August tax levy referendum

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Nick Crow
May 30, 2014

JANESVILLE —Blackhawk Technical College will ask voters for permission to exceed the school's levy limit by $4 million board members decided Thursday night.

The college will include the referendum on the Tuesday, August 12 primary ballot.

“The whole theme on this is that we are trying to create opportunity,” Blackhawk President Tom Eckert said. “We want more sections of our programs and more pathways for people to get the education they need.”

The referendum will ask voters to approve the levy for operational needs, a first for technical colleges in Wisconsin, Eckert said. In the past, levy requests had only been made for capital improvements.

The move would increase the school's base funding by $4 million permanently, Eckert said.

“We're still operating at 2010 dollars,” Eckert said. “This allows us more flexibility to do things we need to do.”

Eckert said Act 32, passed in June 2011, put a freeze on the levy amount the school could ask for, but opened the door for technical colleges to ask voters for more funding through referendum.

“When the freeze came we were at the bottom of all 16 technical colleges in spending per student,” Eckert said. “With our initiatives, with economic uncertainty of the region, we see this as an essential piece to open up more sections and open up key programs.”

The referendum would provide an increase in educational opportunities, support for students, economic stability for the college and campus safety for students, Eckert said.

The projected operational budget for the college for 2014-2015 is $33.47 million with a $1.98 million shortfall in covering operational expenses.

The school can no longer continue to draw from reserves, Eckert said. This year the college is using $150,000 in contingency funds in its budget to help cover the shortfall.

Reserves need to be kept at a level that will stave off short-term borrowing to handle cash-flow shortages, he said.

The levy, if passed, would raise taxes as much as $37 on a $100,000 house each year.

The proposed referendum might be easier to swallow for taxpayers on the heels of Act 145. The act appropriates $406 million in state aid for technical colleges instead replacing revenue from property taxes.

The new legislation funds the college with 45 percent from state aid, 28 percent from tuition and fees and 21 percent from local taxes. The rest is from grants and other revenue.

“The taxpayer will still see savings even with an approved referendum,” Eckert said. “When they look at their property tax bill it will be less from BTC even with its passage.”

The college will tax residents $15.2 million in 2014-2015 without passage of the referendum. That's a decrease of 26.7 percent from 2013-2014.  The state will increase assistance to Blackhawk from $2.8 million to $12.7 million.

The college's last referendum was for $17.5 million in 2002. It paid for building expansions on the central campus.

The board previously discussed a referendum in 2013 to include on the spring 2014 ballot but decided to delay it.

In December 2013, 1,083 Rock and Green county residents responded to a survey asking them if they would support a tax levy referendum.

Forty percent said they would or probably would support the referendum, 15 percent said they were undecided and 45 percent said they would not or probably would not support it.

Board members are hopeful August's primary will yield more favorable results because there are several high profile races which could potentially lead to increased turnout.

“Turnout will be a factor,” said Bill McCoshen, managing partner for Capital Consultants, the group consulting with the board on whether or not to pursue the referendum.

McCoshen said waiting until November could also hurt the chances of passing the referendum because the message could be easily lost in the governor's race.

“If the goal is to educate as many local residents as possible, do it before the firestorm starts,” McCoshen said. “I think August is the best shot to communicate your message clearly and effectively.”

Blackhawk will now form a campaign group to run the referendum crusade. It will use donations to pay to advertise its message, Eckert said.

“We legally can't spend taxpayer dollars for a campaign, nor would we want to,” Eckert said.

The board requested an additional survey to gauge voter support before August. It would then use the results as a strategy for the college's referendum campaign.

“It's all about more educational opportunities for citizens in the district that we serve,” Eckert said.



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