The College of Western Idaho is back before voters this fall, asking for a tax increase.
This time, backers are trying to apply lessons from the defeat of a bond measure two years ago and the 2007 election that gave the community college life.
One of those lessons is to keep the request simple. In 2007, voters in Ada and Canyon counties were asked to decide whether they wanted to start a community college. That was simple. They did.
But in 2016, voters encountered a 264-word measure asking them if they wanted to raise their own taxes so CWI could borrow and spend $180 million on things like “a student success center inclusive of library and classrooms” at the college’s Nampa campus and the construction of a new “academic professional center” just south of Quinn’s Pond in Boise’s West End.
“They were a little over their skis,” said Bill Ilett, a member of the board of directors for the CWI Foundation, the school’s fundraising organization.
The wording — and wordiness — left voters with “a lack of understanding of where the money would go,” said Skip Smyser, an attorney, lobbyist, former state senator and member of CWI’s board of trustees.
This year’s levy measure is shorter. It asks voters if they want CWI to raise property taxes for a $49 million health science building.
The measure would add $12.63 per year for 10 years to the tax bill of a $250,000 house. The owner of such a house now pays $21.47 per year toward CWI.
“When you tell somebody about a student success center, now, that doesn’t speak volumes for what it really is,” Smyser said. “Whereas, you say ‘a health science building,’ everybody gets what that is.”
Absent from this year’s measure is the Boise campus. The college has put those plans on hold at least until this year’s election is decided Nov. 5, spokesman Mark Browning said.
The four-story, 100,000-square-foot health science building would be built just north of the Ford Idaho Center on the college’s Nampa campus. It would house all of the school’s health-care education programs for nurses, nurse assistants, surgical technicians, medical assistants and other professions.
If the levy passes, the college will start immediately on the project’s design phase, CWI President Bert Glandon said. Wary of rising construction costs, officials hope to break ground next year and complete the building in time for the fall 2022 semester.
An official campaign to promote the levy has materialized, funded with $50,000 by private donors through the CWI Foundation. The campaign, called CWI Yes, was established in 2016 as a nonprofit to promote the bond election, but the 2016 drive was never a “campaign of very much consequence,” Smyser said.
That’s in contrast to 2007, when newly minted Gov. Butch Otter stumped for the college, and business leaders backed it vocally.
This year’s effort “seems a lot more like 2007 than 2016 to me,” said Smyser, whom voters elected to CWI’s board the same day they turned down the bond.
Backers regrouped after the failure and dusted off CWI Yes for the new levy campaign. The group hired political consultant Gary Hunter, a former college athletic director who helped Ilett establish NBA Development League team Idaho Stampede in Boise, to run the ground game. So far, Hunter said, CWI Yes has spent money primarily on ads for social media networks like Facebook and LinkedIn.
The group also makes presentations to service groups like the Rotary Club and Kiwanis, Hunter said.
Organized opposition to the levy does not appear to exist.
State law prohibits CWI employees like Glandon from advocating for the levy. But the college has set aside $150,000 for “education” efforts to inform voters about the measure, the building it would pay for and the need for it, Browning said.
This spring, Smyser, his fellow board members, Glandon and other college officials held events in Boise, Nampa, Meridian, Kuna, Middleton, Caldwell Parma and Eagle to talk to the public about the levy, said Browning, the spokesman.
They told audiences that Idaho needs 1,600 more health-care professionals than it has, and the need is growing as more people, many of them retired, move into the state. A new health science building would help CWI close that gap, they say.
“I don’t want anybody to be stupid with my tax money, but when it comes to education, when it comes to long-term care, especially with what’s going on in this valley ... we need to do something,” Ilett said.
Browning said the two-year college graduates fewer than 100 health-care professionals per year. With the new building, he said, that number would more than double, and could reach 250.
Odds of success
Sticker shock was just as important to the 2016 bond’s failure as voters’ difficulty in understanding what it was for, Smyser said. With interest, the $180 million measure actually would have totaled $258 million over 25 years.
“It was a sizable sum and when people had questions about it, it just made it easier to vote no,” Smyser said. “And that’s why, this time, we’re trying to clearly enunciate what it is we’re doing, why we’re doing it and being very focused.”
The Legislature appropriated $10 million to the health science building, making the remainder of the project’s cost “a reasonable amount of money for what people are going to get,” Smyser said. CWI would borrow money to pay for construction and then pay it back over the 10 years of the levy’s duration, Browning said. Interest would add $8 million to the project, bringing its total to $57 million.
The levy has a lower bar for success than the 2016 bond. The bond failed, but not because most people voted against it. More than half of Canyon County voters were in favor of the bond, as were 59 percent of Ada County voters.
That wasn’t enough, because the bond called for long-term borrowing, and in Idaho, that requires a two-thirds majority to pass. This year’s measure is a tax levy that needs only a 55 percent majority.
Though the levy lacks a Boise component, CWI leaders believe it will attract support from Ada County voters.
“I don’t believe there’s a bigger issue than health services in Idaho,” Smyser said. “So I am confident the voters are going to recognize that need, and they’re going to step up and pass this. And I think they’re going to pass it overwhelmingly.”