Larry Stephenson, president of the Gila County Community College (GCC) district, does not understand the delay in getting final figures from the budget year that ended last June from Eastern Arizona College (EAC).
“In this day and age, with computerized finances, what is the hold up?” he asked Senior Dean Steve Cullen during a board meeting on Sept. 20.
Each year, the GCC board must publish a budget by April so the public can look over the numbers before the board officially adopts its budget in June. State law bars the college from spending more than the adopted budget, even if it has the money.
But that is about all the input the board has on the process, said Stephenson.
Unlike every other community college school district in the state, the GCC board has little say on how the money budgeted actually gets spent. That’s because GCC is one of two provisional college districts in the state, which means it must contract with EAC for a credential and oversight.
In other words, the GCC board has no idea how much its instructors get paid or how much is spent on instructional material, said Stephenson.
“That’s what I’m trying to get a handle on,” said the board president.
Each month, EAC sends an invoice to GCC to cover staff, instructional and maintenance costs — and tacks on a hefty 25 percent fee. In fact, the employees working at the GCC campus actually work for EAC, said Stephenson.
Stephenson would like to know how much money sits in the bank before the board rustles up the new budget for next year, so he needs the closing balance from EAC.
During the board meeting, Stephenson and Cullen had a tense exchange over the delay in receiving year-end numbers.
“I’m looking for an end-of-the-year summary to know how to move forward for the next year,” said Stephenson.
“The end of the fiscal year financial report summary will be available no later than November,” said Cullen.
Since Stephenson took the helm of the GCC board earlier this year, he has attempted to formalize and organize the finances of the community college, but has encountered many problems.
For instance, Stephenson lacks the authority to demand information from EAC, which controls the distribution of funds - hence the strained words between Stephenson and Cullen over the budget process during the meeting.
Later, Stephenson admitted Cullen faces extra challenges because he serves two bosses, which pull him in two directions.
“It’s like that country song goes, ‘Trying to love two women is like living with a ball and chain. One has your love and one has your name,” said Stephenson.
Stephenson said that when the GCC board does attempt to exercise control, EAC often pushes back.
This lack of control comes from the unique position GCC finds itself in as one of only two provisional community colleges in the state.
Years ago, in an attempt to limit payments to rural districts through a special equalization fund, the Legislature made it almost impossible to form a new community college district in a rural area. Unfortunately, GCC formed after that cutoff date.
Equalization dollars attempt to help rural districts that don’t have the property tax base enjoyed by metropolitan districts.
GCC and Santa Cruz community colleges slipped into the never-never land of provisional colleges, lacking control over their own finances.
However, GCC won passage of a bill last year that opens the door to independence. However, independence will take a significant amount of money the college can’t start saving up if the board has no idea how much cash it has in the bank, said Stephenson.
“What I’m trying to get at is that EAC has told us how to spend our dollars. I’m trying to give us direction. I’m trying to get us engaged — to spend the dollars collected from Gila County taxpayers responsibly,” said Stephenson to Cullen at the meeting.