AG opinion clears up questions about new college

GILLETTE — A recent opinion from the Wyoming Attorney General’s Office helped clear up some of the legislative red tape in the way of an independent community college district in Campbell County, as a bill for the new district’s formation makes its way through the state Legislature.

In a letter from the Office of the Attorney General, two questions about the state’s existing community college statutes were answered that had been lingering through the months of discourse around Gillette College attempting to create its own district.

The first was whether the trustees of a new community college district could levy less than four tax mills. The opinion found that a district could indeed levy less than four mills “if it is not attempting to qualify for state aid funds.”

That prompted the second question, which asked if a new district assesses fewer than four mills, may it later decide to increase to four mills in order to qualify for state funding. To that question, the letter determined that the district could in fact later raise its levy to four mills and qualify for state funding.

The elected board of trustees for the new district would decide the initial levy, according to the attorney general’s letter.

“That decision is not permanent, and must be revisited annually, affording the district the opportunity to raise the assessment to four mills as needed,” the letter read.

Throughout the Gillette College trek towards forming its own community college district, questions about the mill levy requirements loomed.

Under current Wyoming law, community college districts are “not to exceed” four mills to receive state appropriation funding. However, it was unclear if a community college district could tax less than those four mills in order to exist separate from the state revenue.

The opinion cleared that up, shifting the focus to the current bill in favor of creating a new community college district around Gillette College that was introduced to the Legislature earlier this month

Sen. Jeff Wasserburger, who is sponsoring the Gillette College district formation bill, told the Gillette College Advisory Board and other legislators about the attorney general’s opinion at a meeting earlier this week.

If the bill clears the state Legislature and comes to a public vote, Wasserburger said the county would not have to levy four mills, but instead “you could levy the amount of mills to cover the state appropriation.”

But how many mills will be required is still unclear.

During the campaign last fall to get the Gillette College district application approved by the Wyoming Community College Commission, the community college task force estimated the college’s budget would cost about $14 million if it were to operate independent of the Northern Wyoming Community College District.

“If the bill is approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor, then we have to have an election and the people of Campbell County have to vote for that approval but also to accept the tax that will be a part of the bill,” Wasserburger said at the meeting.

About as murky is the uncertainty of how much those mills will be valued in the future.

Campbell County’s assessed valuation was $4.24 billion in 2020, meaning 1 mill equaled about $4.24 million, with 4 mills raising a little less than $17 million.

The Campbell County Commissioners estimated the assessed value of the county to dip and stabilize around $3.6 billion over the next few years. That would drop the value of a mill to about $3.6 million and bring the value of 4 mills to about $14.4 million.

The Board of Cooperative Higher Education Services, or BOCHES, receives a half-mill of property taxes in Campbell County, and much of that goes to Gillette College.

Each of the seven existing community college districts in the state tax either four or five mills, but each has a significantly lower assessed value than Campbell County.

Rep. John Bear, R-Gillette, is in favor of the district formation bill, mainly in order to bring the decision to the people of Campbell County, who he said should have the final say.

“This particular bill, I would be in favor of,” Bear said. “Whether or not it’s the best solution, I can’t tell you. But I think that the people need to be able to decide if they’re to increase their own taxation in order to have this benefit for the society, the community.”

The amount and impact on the increased tax is a looming question that may have major implications in how the final vote turns out, if it is to come to a public vote.

“We’re headed towards tough times,” Bear added. “I’ve committed to no new taxes personally, but any new tax on the oil and coal industry is just going to mean jobs lost. That decision on how much and if we’re going to increase the mill levy, it has to be one made wisely.”

Seven trustees would be elected to the newly formed district, should it come to be.

Rep. Eric Barlow of Campbell County is the house speaker and a co-sponsor on the Gillette College district formation bill. He said there are still many steps before the bill has a shot at becoming law, but emphasized his belief that it is up to local legislators to do their best to bring it to a vote so the community can decide.

“I’ll do everything I can to make sure this bill gets every opportunity in its process, and I’ll personally support it as well,” he said.

The idea of rallying behind the bill in the state Legislature so the college’s fate can go before the public was echoed by Tracy Wasserburger, who is on the Gillette College Advisory Board.

“If we get it though the Legislature, we still have another huge task to share with our community about the value that this college has,” Tracy Wasserburger said. “Bring it back home and let us be able to decide about the future of our college.”

The bill will go before the Senate Education Committee at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. Jeff Wasserburger said he hopes that by noon, “we will know what’s going to happen to the community college bill.”

“My thoughts are that we will come out of that committee,” he said, adding that it could be one of the first bills decided by the entire Legislature.

A special election could be held as early as May, but given the legislative schedule, it is more likely that it would occur in August.

For now, the new district is being called the Gillette College Community College District, but Wasserburger said that title, with its redundancies and all, could still be changed.