Traverse City Record-Eagle

August 11, 2013

College officials review millage defeat, ponder future

BY ANNE STANTON astanton@record-eagle.com
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Grand Traverse County voters made at least one message abundantly clear.

An overwhelming majority of those who voted in an Aug. 6 special election said “no” to Northwestern Michigan College officials’ proposal to increase property taxes for more operational money, a 15-year pitch that would have generated $1.7 million this year.

But voters cited multiple reasons for NMC’s lopsided — 66 percent to 34 percent — defeat.

Traverse City attorney Dave Grunst said his vote was strictly about taxes.

“The taxes are just so high,” he said. “The school wants more, NMC wants more, and it all falls on the property owner.”

Yet it appears more was at issue than an outright rejection of taxes. Two other local millage requests gained approval on Aug. 6 — one for emergency services in Green Lake Township and another for repair and construction at Forest Area Community Schools.

NMC’s request for .4 mills slipped in front of three other impending property tax increase requests: two by Traverse City Area Public Schools and the other from the Grand Traverse County Road Commission. County voters will weigh in on all three in November.

NMC Board Chairman Doug Bishop said board members will have to analyze voters’ specific concerns and the effect on the community college.

“Immediately in the future it will slow down some of our technology acquisitions and it will make it more difficult to recruit talent to our specialty programs, but we’ll look at everything, and look at it immediately,” he said.

‘Below the radar’

The NMC board opted for a special election in August, and that decision will cost taxpayers and students about $68,000. Board members said they approved the earlier election, in part, to collect the higher property tax this calendar year.

But a Record-Eagle report in late July revealed the board could have achieved the same goal with a November election and without added cost. NMC President Tim Nelson learned of that option in late April, but failed to tell the board before its May vote to proceed.

Election numbers indicate the news could have played a role in NMC’s defeat, or at least the margin of loss.

Those who voted at the polls on Aug. 6 rejected the measure at a 71.5 percent rate. That compares to an earlier vote by absentee voters, who voted “no” at a 60.9 percent clip.

The election date and other concerns proved unsettling for voters like Megan Crandall, who went public on her Facebook page about NMC’s timing for the “below-the-radar election” with an almost certain low turnout — the total was 16.8 percent of registered voters. She also criticized college officials for not clearly stating how they planned to spend nearly $2 million in additional annual revenue.

“The whole thing of, ‘We didn’t know we could have done it in November’ makes me wonder why they didn’t do the research ahead of time?’ Why weren’t those questions asked?” she said.

Local retiree Jim Raphael said it was imperative for NMC to articulate its need for money. He argued that the additional $1.7 million in the first year alone would have exceeded all recent economic downturn-related losses in property tax revenues.

“I don’t know about the state law, but I just think it’s very strange to run a campaign and not at least give the voters some indication of how the college would spend $30 million over the next 15 years,” said Raphael, who professionally raised funds for Stanford University and nonprofits. “This was the most poorly articulated set of needs and poorly run campaign that I’ve seen in a long, long time. There wasn’t any ‘there’ there.”

Raphael said the campaign should have specified goals and new programs, perhaps one aimed at the local craft beer, spirits and wine industry, for example.

But he also applauded the campaign’s effort to convey NMC’s excellent reputation, a message that rang true with 3,667 “yes” voters like Chris Walters, a mechanical engineer.

“NMC was instrumental in my education and career. I’d like to see it continue to grow and do well,” he said. “I trust the management to use the money wisely.”

Tax ‘sensitive’

NMC board member Bill Myers agreed the college failed to clearly state its case. That’s because, he said, NMC officials took a conservative approach to abide by state law, which allows them to objectively say how the money will be used, but bans making promises, such as lowering tuition.

“There can’t be a perception that there’s an idea held hostage by the outcome of the election,” he said.

The college went almost 20 years without asking for additional operating millage, and has done a good job of managing its expenses and revenues, Myers said.

“I think this was one last thing we tried to adjust in the process, and we were turned down,” he said.

NMC board chairman Bishop called the vote “another example of people being very sensitive to anything that increases taxes.”

“I thought we had a good message,” he said. “In terms of constraints of election laws of public bodies, we may have to figure out ways to be more specific.”

Bishop said the special election was intended to maximize NMC’s message, distinct from TCAPS’ request. Future decisions on millages and elections will depend on circumstances.

“That’s a decision we’d have to make, but I’d still not want us to be in a position, even by perception, of being in competition or confusing messages with TCAPS.”

Nelson said he had specified NMC’s planned use of resources prior to the board’s election approval, but not afterward in the run-up to the election. Now that it’s over, he can again talk specifics.

“It’s for operations, investment in technology, investment in people as we build out our programs, investment in the design of new programs,” he said. “… These funds would allow us to accelerate funds into technology infrastructure and as an investment in people as we go forward. We’ll face increased competition from the private sector, and that might have an impact on how much we’ll have to pay them.”

Nelson agrees that property tax assessments are rising, but the Headlee amendment will restrict revenue increases to the rate of inflation, now at 1.8 percent.

“Our job is to continue doing what we’re doing, find ways to serve the community, serve our students. We’ve done that well.”

"I don't know about the state law, but I just think it's very strange to run a campaign and not at least give the voters some indication of how the college would spend $30 million over the next 15 years. This was the most poorly articulated set of needs and poorly run campaign that I've seen in a long, long time. There wasn't any 'there' there." Local retiree Jim Raphael, who has experience fundrasing for Stanford University and other nonprofits