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County leaders debate community college funding

fr sccA budget-trimming effort in Macon County has leaders in multiple counties talking about what’s fair when it comes to community college funding. Charged with proposing an as-small-as-possible budget in advance of expected hard times ahead, Macon County Manager Derek Roland eyed a $200,000 line item for Southwestern Community College.

The funds were to go toward the Jackson campus, not the Macon one, and as Roland looked into it he determined that it wasn’t a $200,000 that Macon County needed to spend.  

“In doing the research on that and talking to board members and talking to Don Tomas with SCC,” Roland said, “it was brought to my attention that was initiated about 19 years ago, prior to Macon County having the campus here.”

SCC opened its first building in Macon County 24 years ago in 1990, when the Jerry Sutton Public Safety Training Center opened its doors. But that was a more limited enterprise, and the campus began expanding with the opening of the Cecil L. Groves Center in 2007. 

Macon County has been paying the $200,000 it had originally been contributing to the Jackson SCC campus plus additional funds for the growing Macon campus. In 2013-14, Macon County contributed a total of $448,563 to SCC, a jump from the 2012-13 amount of $431,063. The 2014-15 approved budget allots $270,463. That includes $39,400 to go toward Jackson campus expenses that benefit Macon County. 

“Macon County was providing funding to Jackson County to cover the cost associated with what Jackson County was giving to Macon County,” Roland said. “Originally that was $200,000. At the end of the budget discussion, that number was down to 39-4.”

Macon commissioners voted unanimously to support the budget that included the $200,000 reduction. With low post-recession property values meaning less tax revenue when new property valuations go into effect next year, the county is cutting where it can ahead of the valuation so that it will only have to raise taxes the minimal amount when the new numbers come out. 

While the college would obviously like to have as large a budget as possible, it bears no hard feelings. 

“We’re just excited about the possibility that we have for growth and expansion in Macon County,” said SCC President Don Tomas. “Budget is budget, and we all have to make tough decisions and we move forward. We’re just grateful and thankful [for the funding we get from Macon County].”


How it breaks down

Of course, it’s not just Jackson students who go to the Jackson campus. The Jackson campus, the largest of the three SCC campuses in Jackson, Macon and Swain counties, had 1,592 students seeking a degree, certificate or diploma in 2013, compared to 496 in Macon County and 67 in Swain. But of those 1,592 students in Jackson, 353 were from Jackson County, about 22 percent. Meanwhile, only 24 of the 496 Macon students came from Jackson. 

“At this point they [SCC] never have done true cost accounting on positions and support services,” said Chuck Wooten, Jackson County manager. “I guess if counties are going to start funding only for those activities that take place in their county, it’s going to require them going back and doing some true cost accounting.”

For instance, SCC has one heating and air conditioning specialist, whose salary is charged to the Jackson campus, but that person works on systems at all three campuses. Same goes for the college president, his administrative staff and other positions that don’t need to be tripled within a single organization. Macon County took care of some of those expenses with the $39,400 it added onto its budget at the end of the process, but a thorough true cost accounting would likely reveal a larger number. 

Part of the confusion is borne of the fact that SCC’s local funding comes from an informal agreement between counties that was made nearly 20 years ago. The college has grown since then, and that growth increases the complexity of funding questions. 

“I think we’re looking at something that’s over 20 years old, that it’s time to be updated anyway,” said Jack Debnam, chairman of the Jackson County commissioners. “It may be that this is what brings around some new ideas about funding the campuses. Do you fund them based on the number of classes? Do you fund them based on the number of graduates? How do you fund it? What’s the rule? I think that’s all what we’ll have to take a good look at over this next year.”

Of SCC’s $27 million 2013-14 budget, $2.3 million was county-funded. Jackson County provided $1.8 million, Macon County kicked in $448,000 and Swain County funded $120,000.  

Though Macon County actually has the most overall students in the SCC system — an average of 836 of the average 2,293 curriculum students between 2011 and 2013, compared to an average 784 from Jackson — most classes and facilities are in Jackson County. That gives Jackson an advantage beyond the educational resource the college provides, Macon County Commission Chairman Kevin Corbin pointed out. 

“Our students do benefit from that Jackson campus and have for years,” Corbin said. “By the same point, Jackson County benefits because our kids are driving across the mountain, spending money there they wouldn’t spend if the campus wasn’t there.” 


A worthwhile investment

Having a nearby college campus benefits a county in innumerable ways, Wooten agreed, and community colleges are mainstays of strong communities. Though he said he did not blame Roland at all for making the decision that he did, he cautioned that counties should be careful, even in tight budget cycles, to cut community colleges too much. 

“The worst thing we could do would be to cut budgets to the community college on the level that the services we expect to be provided cannot be provided,” he said.

That’s not to say Macon County has cut to that extent — educational spending, including K-12 and community college, accounted for 18.5 percent of its 2014-15 budget. 

In recent years, Jackson County has funded SCC at a level about $350,000 lower than the college’s budget request. The county is trying to boost those funding levels, Wooten said, to get them back on track. This year, Jackson County closed the gap by $170,000, though a $200,000 drop from Macon County cancels their increase out. The goal is to close the gap between request and receive completely in the next budget year. 

But all that’s happening with the backdrop of county revenues that haven’t much recovered from the recession. And both Jackson and Macon counties are likely to take a beating next year, when they make a budget based on newly re-evaluated property values. Typically, a revaluation means dollar signs to a county, but because property values fell so much during the recession, the revaluation will likely mean that property tax rates will have to increase just to keep a flat budget. That increases the incentive to shed extra costs, and that’s why Roland zeroed in on the SCC line item in the first place. 

“I know he’s taken some shots from folks that think he doesn’t support Southwestern, and I can tell you that’s not the case,” Corbin said. “That’s not where his heart is. He was taking our directive that we wanted to cut anywhere we could.”

Just last year, Macon County paid $17,500 to develop a 30-year plan for SCC’s Macon campus. So, Roland said, the county is supportive of SCC; it just wants to use what funds it has for higher education to go toward strengthening SCC’s presence in Macon County. 

“It’s clear that we’re going to continue growing here,” Roland said. “We felt like we needed to start investing in Macon County.”

Crafting how best to do that, though, will require some conversation going forward. Once all the entities involved have their 2014-15 budgets put to bed, there will be some effort to do just that. 

“I’m sure we’ll have those kinds of discussions,” Tomas said. “As we grow, I think things always evolve and change, and we need to be in that opportunity to change and have those kinds of discussions.”

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