Bad Economic Climate Postpones College Expansion Plans

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Gila Community College does not necessarily need to purchase the county-owned buildings on its campus in order to expand, county officials said this week.

“It wouldn’t matter who owned the buildings if there was the money (to expand),” said Supervisor Tommie Martin.

Senior Dean Stephen Cullen said an ideal timeline would involve the college taking ownership of existing buildings and “digesting” added costs financially before seeking new structures. However, this dreary economic climate pushes those thoughts back at least five years, he added.

Although the buildings are owned free and clear, the college cannot afford the roughly $100,000 it would cost to insure them, Cullen said Wednesday.

County manager Steven Besich said the insurance costs the county essentially nothing. The county buys pooled insurance with 11 other counties, and the extra buildings don’t result in added risk, which would increase the premium.

Besides, Besich said, a successful college saves the county money.

Before voters approved the provisional district in 2002, the county subsidized out-of-county tuition for residents to attend Eastern Arizona College, which cost an average of $1 million each year.

County officials don’t view the land as theirs.

“We’re holding it in trust for them,” Martin said. “We don’t look at it as our asset.”

The county would not build a new jail, for instance, on the 56 acres there, as was sometimes brought up during the court facilities upgrade discussion, Martin said.

A recently released master facilities plan for the college concluded that it should work toward gaining ownership of its buildings, which the county now owns.

But more importantly, county and college officials say, is the need for more money — equal state funding or a possible increase in property taxes.

“If you can’t afford the buildings that you currently have,” Cullen said, then the college can’t afford new ones.

However, the college recently entered into a lease purchase for its first building, a modular unit for Globe’s new cosmetology program. Board members in Payson have said they’d rather expand with non-mobile units, but other college officials say that may be the most affordable way forward.

Cullen said he looked at buildings to lease for a possible cosmetology program in Payson.

“It’s like Noah’s Ark. Whatever we do, we do two of,” Cullen said.

But, “we can’t afford that either. I hate to keep crying wolf all the time that we can’t afford it,” he added, but there is simply no money.

Gila County has neither enough people or assessed property valuation to organize its own college and so Eastern Arizona College runs it. As a consequence, the college receives less than half of the funding per full-time student as other community colleges and is unable to bond for new buildings.

College officials say that without more classroom space, the school will face serious hindrances to growth in the future.

“The buildings will be in our name someday, but certainly not in the near future,” Cullen said.

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