Idaho Falls debates benefits, costs of new community college

IDAHO FALLS — A local group’s push for a community college in Idaho Falls puts K-12 and higher education on a collision course for local taxpayer dollars.

Citizens for Affordable Higher Education, a group of local professionals, says transforming Eastern Idaho Technical College into a community college is a no-brainer. “It’s time,” said group member and attorney Steve Taggart. “There are just so many benefits to doing this.”

But the project comes with a price tag. Though the state is offering $5 million in startup costs, the average homeowner in Bonneville County would see an annual increase of $13.37 in property taxes, or about a dollar a month.

Taggart said it’s a meager trade-off for the benefits wrought by a community college, including more dual enrollment opportunities for local K-12 students.

But some are calling for caution in the midst of the push.

“We are already grossly overtaxed in relation to what we’re getting for our money in bonds and levies,” said Lindsay Russell Dexter, senior director of policy at the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a Boise-based conservative watchdog.

An Idaho Falls resident, Dexter said the area’s bent toward bonds adds up. She pointed to Bonneville School District’s recent $63.5 million bond measure for a new high school, which rounds out to a $2.92 monthly bump for every $100,000 of taxable property.

Follow Idaho EdNews on Facebook for the latest news »

Meanwhile, the Idaho Falls School District hopes to upgrade its two area high schools, with a bond measure likely hitting ballots this summer. The most recent projections put the project at $100 million. To put that number into perspective, patrons with homes valued at $200,000 could see see an annual tax bump of about $50 a year, assuming taxable growth of 1 percent within the district’s boundaries. (Earlier this summer, investment officials reported at least 1 percent growth in the district’s taxable value since fiscal year 2014.)

Dexter acknowledged the benefits tied to a community college, but said a deeper dive is needed before she could provide a decisive opinion.

“Saying it’s going to be a buck a month is just not sufficient,” she said. “The state touts $5 million for start up costs, but we need to remember that those are also tax dollars.”

Taggart touted Bonneville County’s growing tax base, which has swelled from $1 billion to nearly $6 billion since the initial push for a community college in 1991. The larger tax base absorbs bonds better.

“(The community college) would now cost roughly one-third of what average taxpayers pay for the county dump,” he said.

Idaho Falls School District superintendent George Boland said a community college would pave the way for students to receive an associate’s degree while still in high school — at a fraction of what it would cost them in college.

Boland said he wasn’t worried about a community college bond measure jeopardizing his district’s future request for a piece of the pie.

“They’ll run their bond in May,” he said. “We are contemplating a bond, but the earliest would be August of next year.”

The push for a community college has been backed by prominent Idaho Falls community members, including Rep. Wendy Horman, Sen. Dean Mortimer, Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper and school board members in both of the city’s school districts.

Taggart said supporters would present their required list of 1,000 community-member signatures to county commissioners last week. Pending approval from the State Board of Education, voters could find the measure on May ballots.