Traverse City Record-Eagle

July 28, 2013

Editorial: Actions cloud NMC millage request

Our view
Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — There’s no denying Northwestern Michigan College’s significance in the Grand Traverse region.

NMC generally is a fine community college with a broad menu of educational fare, as well as strong niche programming, including nursing, aviation, maritime, culinary and water studies. NMC is a community staple, a strong presence in local education, business and social circles.

The college offers opportunity for local young people who may not have the means or grades to attend a bigger school elsewhere. Many older students and mid-career job-changers also have benefited from NMC, particularly so during the last decade’s devastating economic collapse.

NMC mainly is funded through three sources: student tuition, state revenue, and taxes levied on Grand Traverse County property owners. County voters in 1995 agreed to permanently fund NMC through a millage that started at 2.57 mils but since settled to about 2.2 mils, thanks to Headlee rollbacks.

NMC’s Board of Trustees in April agreed to place a, 15-year, .4-mil tax increase request before county voters this year, a figure that effectively would restore its original millage rate and raise $1.7 million in 2013. College officials contend state funding cuts and stagnant property tax revenue necessitate a tax hike, but they’ve been woefully vague about how they plan to use proceeds from the additional tax. In effect, their pitch is: “Trust us.”

Recent revelations, including details pried out of NMC officials in Record-Eagle stories last week, certainly cloud the trust sales pitch, and demand that local voters think long and hard when they cast ballots at an Aug. 6 special election.

NMC administrators and elected officials in April came up with an election strategy designed to give them the optimal chance at victory, though it’s a strategy some voters and taxpayers likely will find at least off-putting.

NMC targeted an Aug. 6 special election as opposed to the standard November election because, they contend, they didn’t think they could get an approved November tax increase on winter 2013 tax bills. But NMC officials, including President Tim Nelson, learned otherwise way back in April. Nelson and others never mentioned that fact to board members, nor did board members follow up and ask whether November could be in play.

Why not? Seems like they’d want to know that answer, because it’ll cost NMC students and taxpayers nearly $70,000 to hold a special election in August, whereas a November election wouldn’t have cost them a dime.

Nelson told the Record-Eagle last week it slipped his mind to share the November election viability with the board; he also said he had the same mind-slippage two weeks ago when he told the Record-Eagle’s editorial board an August election was necessary to get the hike on the winter tax bills, though he knew that wasn’t the case.

The reasons NMC leaders focused so intently on Aug. 6 are twofold: One, college officials last week acknowledged they chose that date because they wanted to beat Traverse City Area Public Schools to the tax punch. They were fully aware TCAPS was retooling its failed bond issue from 2012 and planned to ask voters for a lesser amount in November 2013. NMC did not want to be on the same November ballot as TCAPS or anyone else.

Second, there’s no doubt NMC went with an August special election because college officials anticipate very light voter turnout. The only other elections set for Grand Traverse County that day are minor issues in three south county townships. NMC’s strategy is to motivate their strong supporters to vote and hope everyone else stays at the beach. And NMC will spend almost $70,000 student and taxpayer dollars to play that angle.

That’s exactly the kind of cynical governance that undermines the public’s trust.

Grand Traverse County taxpayers and voters need to vote in this election. NMC is a good and valuable institution, though its leadership doesn’t always meet those standards. If some voters choose to overlook the shenanigans and vote for the millage because they support the school, so be it. If others object to a special election or NMC’s vague public statements about how the money is to be used, that’s their right, too.

But voters must take this opportunity to collectively speak their mind on Aug. 6. Sitting it out — and griping afterward — isn’t an option.