Bonneville County Republicans draft resolution opposing community college

IDAHO FALLS — A group of Bonneville County Republicans has drafted a resolution opposing plans to turn Eastern Idaho Technical College into a community college, leaving local conservatives split over the issue.

The Bonneville County Republican Central Committee voted 21-11 Thursday to oppose the looming May 16 ballot measure that would designate Bonneville County a community college taxing district and inaugurate the transformation of EITC into a community college.

The group’s resolution provides a 17-point breakdown of perceived problems tied to the measure, from the need to reduce the overall “size and cost of government” to “ever-increasing taxes” to fears that a community college could become a refugee center.

“Taxpayers in Bonneville County just don’t need another new tax,” said Larry Lyon, a local conservative who petitioned for the BCRCC’s opposing resolution. “And these taxing districts have a history of asking for more and more money over time.”

Lyon pointed to a section of Idaho code that enables community college trustees to raise the local tax levy portion of their budgets by 3 percent annually from the prior year. Which means that the $862,781 in local property tax revenues estimated to get the project off the ground could increase by $25,883 after the first year, and again by $26,659 after the second year.

“They are trying to tax us into prosperity,” Lyon said. “And they (trustees) can raise these taxes every year if they choose to.”

But a number of prominent local Republicans say the economic impact tied to these 3 percent increases isn’t as significant as opponents like Lyon are making them out to be.

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Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, acknowledged a community college’s power to raise the local tax portion of its budget by 3 percent annually, but pointed to a booming Bonneville County tax base, which peaked at $6 billion in 2016. The big base would soften the blow of potential tax increases on a per-household basis, Mortimer said.

Local officials estimate an initial annual tax increase of $13.37 per $100,000 of taxable value if the measure gains the 66.6 percent supermajority of votes needed to pass next month. Six straight years of 3 percent tax increases would raise that annual amount to $15.49, a little more than two dollars, Mortimer said: “And that’s on a yearly basis, not a monthly one.”

Mortimer also ran down a list of issues that some Republicans say renders a community college in Eastern Idaho a no-brainer, from EITC’s current infrastructure, “already well equipped for a community college,” to $5 million in state funds pledged by Gov. Butch Otter earlier this year.

“The key thing to look at is the beginning cost to taxpayers,” Mortimer said. “And that amount ($862,781) is very low compared to what it would be without the existing infrastructure.”

But those opposed to the measure say it’s about more than just the money. The BCRCC’s resolution also references “divisive activities beyond the scope of (a school’s) educational mission, like CSI (the College of Southern Idaho) did when it established the CSI refugee center.”

Lyon said referencing a hotly debated issue like refugee resettlement has nothing to do with rallying opposition to the measure and everything to do with community colleges’ tendency to “drift” away from what they were created to do.

“The whole point of that paragraph is to point out that some of these schools have drifted beyond the scope of their mission,” Lyon said. “If I’m going to pay for a taxpayer-funded school, I want it to be laser-focused on what it was created for — and some of these community colleges have a hard time doing that.”

Those opposed to the measure also say little “here and there” increases in property taxes add up over time. In an earlier interview with EdNews, Lyon pointed to the recent $65 million bond for a new high school passed by patrons in the Bonneville School District, and to a potential $100 million bond recently floated by the Idaho Falls School District.

The push for a community college has been backed by prominent Idaho Falls community members, including Rep. Wendy Horman, Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper and Idaho Falls School District Superintendent George Boland, who said the measure would help more high school students cash in on more dual-credit courses.

Tuition is also slated to run about $130 per credit hour, compared to Idaho State University’s $348 per credit charge.

Despite the political rift over the issue, Mortimer said he’s hopeful the measure will pass come May.

“I think it will happen — with a lot of work,” he said.