Despite a call from a coalition of business, agriculture and political leaders to act, the Southeast Community College Board of Governors won’t reconsider its property tax rate next year.
On Thursday, 10 members of a coalition that formed last fall in opposition to a proposed bond issue vote put forward by SCC — Vote No 369 — signed a letter to the college asking for it to lower its 2017-18 property tax rate.
The SCC Board on Sept. 19 unanimously approved raising the property tax rate for the 15 counties in its district from 7.52 cents per $100 of valuation to 9.07 cents per $100 of valuation for the 2017-18 school year, a 21 percent increase.
Under the increase, homeowners with an average property in Lancaster County would expect to pay about $165 in property taxes to support SCC next year.
Dale Kruse, the board’s president, said SCC spent months studying its options for funding new facilities on each of the college’s three campuses after a $369 million bond issue put before voters last fall was defeated.
“At the September meeting, the board decided to go in the direction we’re going and that was a unanimous vote,” Kruse said. “I don’t see a special meeting being called to change that.”
Organized a year ago to oppose the bond issue, the Vote No 369 coalition said the margin by which the bond issue failed — a two-thirds majority — signaled broader opposition to any “major property tax increases” levied by the college’s governing board.
Steve Nelson, president of Nebraska Farm Bureau, said the ag group’s members are “questioning how the SCC board could ignore the wishes of taxpayers who clearly indicated they wanted SCC to demonstrate restraint” when it came to future tax increases.
But leaders from SCC said the increase will help the college meet workforce demands in areas such as skilled health care and manufacturing, where inadequate facilities and waiting lines are limiting the number of graduates SCC can produce.
The majority of the tax increase goes into the college’s capital improvement fund, which increased from 1.05 cents per $100 of valuation to the 2 cent per $100 of valuation lid.
Those funds are earmarked for a new health sciences education building in Lincoln, a diesel technology facility in Milford and a general education building in Beatrice, SCC President Paul Illich said.
“The needs haven’t changed,” Illich said. “We’ve got to increase our capacity to meet our need. When the board made that decision, they were basing it on what our needs were to meet that goal.”
Illich added that even after the increase, SCC has the second lowest property tax levy of Nebraska’s six community colleges after Mid-Plains Community College.
He added that the community college tax levy represents about 5 percent of the total tax bill for property owners in the 15-county area.
While the board does not plan to meet before Oct. 13, the date its tax levy will be certified, one member of the board voiced some regret for supporting the increase.
“I feel I’ve let the voters down,” said Don Reiman, who represents several extreme Southeast Nebraska counties on the SCC board. “They’re not happy. It’s a huge increase.”
But Reiman said he is also conflicted. While he went against the majority of the board who supported the bond issue last year, Reiman said he also believes SCC needs to invest in new facilities, particularly in communities without a campus.
Community leaders in places like Falls City, where a new learning center will be built using revenue generated from the recent tax increase, have asked SCC to help train new workers, particularly in areas like manufacturing.
“We’ve been overlooked so long down here,” he said. “We get a Career Academy up in Lincoln, but that isn’t doing us any good down here.”