GILLETTE — Discussions over how to shape legislation that could allow Campbell County to form its own community college district are underway.
With Gillette College’s future in the hands of the state Legislature, many questions remain.
The Select Committee on Community College Funding worked through drafts of a pair of bills that, if passed in the next legislative session, could clear the way for a new district centered around Gillette College.
One bill proposes the creation of the Gillette College Community College District itself. The other is an attempt to rewrite the community college laws to clear the way for a new district in Campbell County.
Current Wyoming statute says a community college district has to tax 4 mills to qualify to receive state funding. But the current language is up for interpretation as to whether 4 mills is needed for a district to exist or just to receive the state support.
Because Campbell County’s tax base is far and away larger than any other county in the state, a full 4 mills likely wouldn’t be necessary to fund a college district. However, taxing less would mean the new district would be disqualified from state money all the other districts share.
For 2020, Campbell County’s assessed valuation is $4.24 billion, meaning 1 mill now raises $4.24 million and 4 mills worth nearly $17 million.
The Campbell County Commissioners estimate the assessed value of the county will dip and stabilize around $3.6 billion over the next few years. That would drop the value of a mill to about $3.6 million and bring the value of 4 mills to about $14.4 million.
“If we levy 2 mills, we would be able to completely fund our college here with no state dollars,” said Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, R-Gillette, during this week’s committee meeting.
As part of the Northern Wyoming Community College District, Gillette College now receives $4.6 million in state money, Wasserburger said. He said that by becoming self-sustainable from its own tax levy, that money would be able to recycle among the seven existing districts.
“We just simply don’t need to tax that much,” he said.
Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Fremont, questioned the possible burden that taxing 4 mills could have on industry in Campbell County and the state.
“We are also very concerned that there’s a disproportionate reliance on industry,” said Erin Taylor, executive director of the Wyoming Association of Community College Trustees.
Another topic of discussion around reshaping the state law regarding community colleges is about what to do with service areas.
Service areas are the counties that are encompassed within districts that are not within the tax area, like Campbell County is now within the Sheridan County-based Northern Wyoming Community College District.
Questions about whether to tax those counties, how much they would be taxed, how that tax would be decided and what kind of representation would come with the taxes were all raised during the meeting.
“This is where I think there’s still a lot more work to do,” Taylor said.
While the presidents of the other community colleges at the meeting mostly supported Campbell County’s desire to form its own district and gain its own autonomy, concern was expressed about how that would financially affect the other seven community college districts already in Wyoming.
“It’s hard from the community college perspective, or at least my perspective, to see how this helps improve the ability or sustainability for community college funding,” said Joe Schaffer, president of Laramie County Community College.
He said the changes being discussed seemed to add more bureaucracy during a time when the districts are being asked to think in terms of consolidation and efficiency.
“A lot of the changes in this bill seem to be designed to pave an easier path to get the voters in Campbell County to support Gillette College,” Schaffer said.
“I certainly don’t question the motivation from those who are most interested in that outcome, but I think we find that when we try to legislate to the exception it generally doesn’t lead to the best outcomes or the best legislation,” he said.
The committee decided to separate some of the sticking points into different bills, partially as a way to simplify and specify, but also so as to not lump the various changes together and improve its chances of passing through the House and Senate.
“If we’re really going to do this correctly, then we don’t want to add another burden to minerals,” Bebout said. “But if we need to broaden our tax base, that’s a whole other issue.”
Before a new community college district can be created in Campbell County, there is much more minutia and many more implications for the Legislature to weed through.
“I keep thinking, why do we limit so strictly out of Cheyenne how much a college district can ask of its own community?” asked Sen. Bill Landen, R-Natrona. “Somehow, we need to continue the conversation about a little more local ability to support those colleges.”