BTC considers referendum
TOWN OF ROCK The Blackhawk Technical College Board gave the college president a tentative thumbs up Thursday when he asked if he should look into the possibility of a referendum.
That's not to say the board is ready to ask voters for permission to borrow millions of dollars. That decision is months away.
BTC President Tom Eckert asked the board for permission to explore the potential.
Board member Victor Gonzalez was the most enthusiastic about a referendum to give BTC the space that officials think it needs.
"The time is right. The cost of borrowing, the cost of building, everything is right," Gonzalez said.
Gonzalez said lawmakers are telling local taxing jurisdictions statewide that if they need more money, the can always ask property tax payers for it in a referendum, and many are considering doing so.
"If we don't, they will, and there's only so much goodwill" to go around, Gonzalez said.
BTC also has the goodwill of many in the community because of its role in retraining so many displaced workers in recent years, Gonzalez said.
Board Chairman Kevin Leavy said he's not for or against a referendum, but officials must be ready to answer tough questions.
For example, people will ask why BTC didn't get the space it needed in the last referendum. Voters approved $17.5 million in borrowing in November 2002.
Current needs could not have been anticipated 10 years ago, officials said.
Board member Barbara Barrington echoed Leavy's sentiments: "Even though we know we have needs, what's the public's perception? That's what concerns me."
Leavy said people will ask about enrollment.
Enrollment is down slightly from historic highs caused by the economic downturn, said Renea Ranguette, vice president for finance and operations.
But if you look at the enrollment question another way, "enrollment is not down. This facility was built for 3,000 students. There are 5,500 out there now," Eckert said.
"We are busting at the seams," Ranguette said. "We struggle where to put classes and offer things we need to offer."
Gonzalez noted that a referendum covering the entire BTC District—most of Rock and Green counties—would have less of an effect on a person's taxes than a school district referendum.
That's not the way to look at it, Leavy said.
People who can afford a small tax increase will be fine, but a tax hike might be devastating for those on fixed incomes, Leavy said.
"Certainly in this economic environment, these things are a challenge. We recognize that," Eckert said.
Eckert did not have a final list of space needs. That's something he will put together soon, with the help of an architect, now that he has the board's permission. But he mentioned these items:
-- More space for training in the health care field. Accreditation agencies have told BTC that space is too tight, and current facilities were not meant to handle the students now taking classes, Eckert said.
-- Renovations at the central campus if and when a new advanced manufacturing center is established in Milton and classes are moved there, Eckert said.
Officials should know soon about the Milton building, which they would renovate by using the college's borrowing power, capped by law at $1.5 million a year.
Central-campus renovations would provide spaces that BTC now lacks, including extra-large classrooms, science labs and more space for students, Eckert said.
-- A water main extension to campus. Wells now serve the campus, and water pressure is inadequate. Eckert said he fears what would happen in the event of a fire.
Board member Craig Duncan suggested that one of the first things Eckert should do is gauge the support from businesses and civic organizations, to see how much spending people would be willing to support.
Eckert said after the meeting that this exploratory stage will include a public-opinion survey to ask that very question. The survey could come as early as this spring.
Eckert told the board that the best time to hold a referendum and get a good turnout would be during fall midterm or presidential elections. The next midterm elections are in November 2014.