Traverse City Record-Eagle

April 21, 2013

Editorial: NMC must convince voters of need to 'transform'

Traverse City Record-Eagle

— Asking taxpayers to increase their own burden is never an easy proposition for local governments.

Experienced public officials know that a key to any request is to be as specific as possible about why a tax hike is needed and what the additional money is going to be used for. The aim is to educate voters to the point where they feel they understand the situation and can weigh for themselves the pros and cons.

Given that, Northwestern Michigan College is facing a particularly tough time selling a request for 0.4 mills it wants to put before voters in August. NMC President Tim Nelson said the additional money will be used to pay for daily operations and help the college transform itself for the future.

“We’ve looked at the environment in which we operate, and it’s changing dramatically and causing us to transform as fast as we can,” Nelson said.

As millage concepts go, that’s a tough sell — or at least a tough concept to explain. It’s not like asking for money to build a new science building or some other brick-and-mortar request.

And NMC is going to have a hard time pleading poverty. The college says the additional millage, if approved, will raise about $1.7 million a year. While money from the state has fallen over the last 10 years, overall revenue increased by $2.9 million from fiscal year 2011 to 2012, due mostly to a $2.1 million increase in tuition. And that came at a time of declining enrollment and a drop in “contact hours,” which loosely translates into credit hours.

Further, NMC has a very healthy fund balance of $16.1 million, almost 38 percent of its $42.6 million annual operating budget.

Compounding the problems of selling “transformation” and a focus on new programming is that state law bans him from specifically saying how additional annual revenues would be used, Nelson said.

If must be said that Nelson has for years been preaching the need for NMC and other community colleges to adapt to a changing audience. Students want training to advance their skills and knowledge, but not necessarily to obtain a college degree, he said.

NMC will need to invest in training people to deliver education differently and marketing NMC out of the area, Nelson said. “We’ll have to spend money we’ve never had to spend before.”

The college is already offering programs to teach students how to operate robots including a program dealing with unmanned airplanes, or drones. The college expects those programs to attract high-tuition students from around the world.The college is offering college-level instruction to area high school students and has increased recruiting and support of veterans. Nelson also expects the college to eventually be able to offer a four-year nursing degree.

In the end, a 0.4-mill tax hike isn’t a lot — about $40 a year for the owner of a home with a taxable value of $100,000. And the request would simply restore the 2.5742-mill issue approved by voters in 1995, which has been reduced over the years by Headlee rollbacks.

But as Traverse City Area Public Schools discovered last fall when voters trounced a 10-year, $100 million request, voters may not be ready to say yes to more taxes. It will take a great sales job to make it float.