A lobbying firm’s contract renewal spurred a bitter exchange in an otherwise harmonious meeting of the Gila Community College board last week.
Board member Tom Loeffler objected to a $36,000 annual contract for Triadvocates to lobby for the provisional community college district in the Legislature.
Loeffler said the Phoenix-based firm has done a poor job in pushing for bills in the Legislature to ensure GCC gets the same treatment as the state’s other community college districts.
Loeffler has in the past opposed the Triadvocates contract because the firm also represents Eastern Arizona College, with which GCC contracts for administrative and academic services.
“Triadvocates actually worked against us and was aligned with other colleges for workforce development funding,” said Loeffler. “I don’t think they did the job we were paying them for.”
However, board member Bob Ashford took vigorous exception to Loeffler’s statement.
“I wholeheartedly disagree,” he said. “I know they’re working for us 24/7. They’ve done an excellent job. It would be ridiculous and stupid for us to kick them in the face and say otherwise.”
The sharp exchange about the lobbying contract came shortly after then-board-president Ashford stunned other board members by nominating Payson board member Larry Stephenson to serve as the president.
Ashford’s decision to step aside seemed to signal a new era on the deeply divided board, with north county representatives Loeffler and Stephenson frequently opposing a solid board majority led by Ashford.
But the discussion of the lobbying contract underscored the deep divisions that remain.
On Friday, the board voted 4-1 to renew Triadvocates’ contract, with the newly elected President Stephenson siding with the three board members with districts based in south county.
The dispute about the contract arose from the complex effort by state Sen. Sylvia Allen to finagle two bills through the Legislature on GCC’s behalf.
One bill changed state formulas so that GCC can eventually gain its independence. As a provisional community college, the district has to rely on its contract with Eastern Arizona College to credential its programs — paying a 25-percent overhead fee on everything it spends.
The bill provided a way for GCC to declare independence and seek its own credentialing. However, it also barred GCC from ever getting “equalization funding” — extra funding set up to help rural districts compensate for their low property values.
If the legislation hadn’t barred GCC from ever getting equalization funding, it could have enjoyed a windfall of $6 million annually upon achieving independence — more than doubling its budget.
A second bill would have allowed the provisional college district to get the same workforce development funds as the other districts in the state. That would provide money to help the college support its vocational degrees and programs, like its nursing program or certificates in firefighting and law enforcement. Initially, Sen. Allen’s bill would have used the same statewide formulas for GCC as other districts have long received.
That would have netted the college $280,000 annually.
However, other community colleges didn’t want to share the workforce development money and convinced members of the House higher education committee to limit the jobs money for GCC to $80,000.
Loeffler, who worked closely with Sen. Allen to push both bills through the Legislature, said Triadvocates pushed changes in the bill supported by the other community colleges, which had the effect of sharply limiting the money GCC received.
In previous interviews, Sen. Allen has said House members forced her to accept the change, based on language submitted by representatives of a statewide organization that represents community colleges.
On Friday, Loeffler insisted that Triadvocates failed to fight for fair treatment for GCC on either the equalization or the workforce development funding.
However, President Larry Stephenson said GCC urgently needs a lobbyist this year given the uncertainties in the state budget.
The state Legislature cut state support for community colleges by 50 percent last year. However, the state is already projecting a surplus of more than $600 million, which could lead to the restoration of some of the community college cuts.
“I’ve heard quite a bit of talk about increasing community college funding, so we don’t want to get lost in the shuffle where we’re not listed with the other community colleges” due to GCC’s status as one of two provisional districts in the state, said Stephenson.
The board majority agreed and overrode Loeffler’s objections.