Gila County has 35 percent more population than Eastern’s home county of Graham, and its tax base is 63 percent higher. Yet, Gila County falls short of legislative population and tax base thresholds and so it must contract with Eastern for academic and student services.
The result? Eastern Arizona gets about eight times as much per student in state aid as Gila County — and GCC must pay some $1.5 million to EAC just to operate.
Had Gila formed a few decades earlier, the college would have been grandfathered into the state threshold law — as was Graham. It would have double the money to spend and have control over its own curriculum and staff.
The key to Gila County’s frustrating second-class citizenship lies in politics and arcane formulas.
When lawmakers first passed the requirements decades ago, a county needed at least 40,000 people over the age of 15 and a tax base of $480 million.
Some counties that did not meet the thresholds had already established community colleges. Those counties — Graham, Cochise, Navajo and Yuma/La Paz — were grandfathered in and the state began awarding them money to compensate for their small tax bases.
Called equalization aid, the state was set to distribute $35 million to those four community colleges in 2010 — half of it to Graham, mostly because of its small tax base. Those numbers are from the Joint Legislative Budget Committee and don’t include budget cuts.
However, Gila County voters didn’t approve a district until 2002.
The timing left Gila County one option — form a provisional district, which offers classes but by statute must contract with another school for instructional and student services. Gila, until recently, was the only provisional college in the nation. Still, just two exist — the other in Santa Cruz County.
And so, Gila’s late birth relegated it to a virtual caste system where it not only misses out on millions of dollars in state aid, but must turn over control to a college that fails to meet the same thresholds — but has timing on its side.
“We’re a step-child up here as far as the state legislators go,” said Ron Christensen, former county supervisor and Gila board member. Under the current formula, Gila would receive about $6 million in rural college funding, roughly 15 percent of the 2011 rural colleges pot. For perspective, the school’s budget this year is $4.5 million.
County officials advocated forming a district because they were paying roughly $1 million annually to subsidize tuition for local residents attending classes at local campuses. Because Eastern has run campuses locally since the late 1960s, Gila residents taking classes were considered out-of-county, and were charged higher tuition.
Although the county saves money on tuition subsidies, Gila County taxpayers now subsidize Eastern about $1.5 million annually.
“We saved it, but we gave it away,” said current board member Larry Stephenson.
Gila County’s population now meets the original requirement, but tax base thresholds increase annually, based on the average increase in all rural counties.
Gila has bigger tax base than Graham
This year, a county must have a $1.7 billion tax base, up nearly 12 percent from the year before. Because the threshold increases every year, Gila will likely never cross the barrier.
In 2009, Gila County’s tax base amounted to roughly $597 million, compared to Graham’s of $222 million.
State Rep. Bill Konopnicki says the thresholds have purpose. “It isn’t arbitrary and capricious,” he said.
For instance, Konopnicki said Coconino Community College is struggling financially and the county’s tax base barely reaches above the minimum at $1.8 billion. Coconino College, however, also has the lowest tax rate for community colleges in the state, which the school says contributes to its financial woes. Graham County has the highest tax rate.
Graham also projected a $20.5 million carryover at the end of fiscal year 2010, compared to Gila, which could have a small surplus after furloughs, tuition hikes and layoffs.
Because Graham’s tax base is so small, it’s also the biggest winner in the state’s rural college funding. Board member Tom Loeffler said the state also awards Eastern with extra rural college money because the county’s taxpayers pay such high taxes.
Ultimately, however, the same law that bars Gila from receiving this money also awards half of the funds to Eastern.
In 2009, the state divvied up $28 million from the fund among rural community colleges, 53 percent of it to Graham because it has the smallest tax base.
Lawmakers base the funding on the difference between a county’s actual tax base and the minimum required to operate a fully-fledged district.
The funding results in huge discrepancies. In 2009, Eastern received more than $8,300 per full-time student in total state aid, while Gila received $947. The rural schools money accounted for most of the difference.
The state average, including bigger colleges in Maricopa County, was about $1,200 per full-time student.
Konopnicki says lawmakers want to eliminate equalization funding, and he has listed Gila’s desired entrance into the formula as one reason the college won’t gain independence.
“No additional community college will be added ever to the equalization funding. We’re worried about keeping equalization as it is,” he said.
Konopnicki has flip-flopped on Gila’s bid for independence. At one point, he called it a “miracle” the college still existed because legislators have tried erasing the legislation that allows it to exist.
Now, he says the process must unfold slowly and carefully lest his fellow lawmakers undo the whole operation. This change of heart occurred after State Sen. Sylvia Allen, whose seat Konopnicki is campaigning to take in next month’s primary, started a task force to draft legislation that would free GCC.
Senator wants legislation by January
Allen wants to introduce the legislation in January.
One-time board president Peter Kettner said that the state representatives he spoke with while involved with the college also delivered a defeatist message. “Never. They told us in those words. You will never have an independently run college in Gila County.”
At one point, the provisional college legislation was due to expire, but Rim Country leaders defeated the threat.
“I had to burn a lot of political chips to get that done,” Konopnicki said.
The state’s budget fiasco has tempered hopes of winning equal funding. However, some advocates question Konopnicki’s commitment. The representative previously worked for Eastern, and he lives close to top Eastern officials.
This legislative session, Konopnicki continued his effort to win Eastern more funding to provide a select number of four-year degrees while at one point categorizing Gila’s battle to win sovereignty as hopeless.
Read part five of our special seven-part report on GCC: GCC: A promising future