Maricopa County's growing family of community colleges is asking voters for a hefty new mortgage to make room for all the new students flooding in. Its sheer size — nearly $1 billion for new buildings and equipment, plus repairs and renovations — demands careful analysis before casting your vote on Proposition 401.
As the Tribune's Jason Emerson reported on Monday, the $951.3 million bond proposal is strongly supported by a number of major Valley industries, from construction to health care.
Their support boils down to two compelling facts of modern American life: 1) An ever-expanding proportion of today's jobs requires workers with the kind of specialized training and higher education provided by community colleges and 2) continued expansion of Arizona's economy depends heavily on the growth of industries that provide higher-paying jobs that require a more educated work force.
The Maricopa Community College District, one of the largest and fastest growing in the country, has done a phenomenal job of responding to the burgeoning demand for higher education. And any way you slice it, the district has been a bargain for taxpayers.
Still, the Arizona Tax Research Association has issued a critical report on the bond proposal, mainly questioning a portion that would borrow money for computers and building maintenance. ATRA says borrowing for such purposes is a bad deal for taxpayers because the life of computer equipment and building repairs likely would be shorter than the term of the bonds. The tax-watchdog organization says the district board should do a better job budgeting for funds for such purposes out of the general fund.
MCCD officials point out, however, that rapid growth and lean budgeting haven't allowed the district to pay cash for all its equipment and maintenance needs. Meanwhile, acquiring more cutting-edge computer equipment is essential to fulfilling its mission of preparing a fast-growing number of students for careers in high-tech fields. And allowing older buildings and grounds to deteriorate because the district's operating budget is stretched to the max would be foolish because playing catch-up would be more expensive in the long run, they argue.
MCCD officials, who also point out that the bond proposal represents about half of the district's overall capital needs, are right. Unless Valley voters are open to a significant tax increase, the college district will not have the cash it needs on an ongoing basis to keep up with equipment and repair needs. Demand for more and better higher education in our Valley right now is just too strong.
To alleviate the fiscal downside of borrowing for equipment and repairs, the district board is proposing using short-term bonds to pay for that portion of the measure. The bulk of the package — mainly for new construction to house more students at most of the district's colleges — would be repaid over 20 years.
Voting against Proposition 401 would, in a very real sense, penalize the college district for its own success, which is helping feed the demand for more space and programs. Failure of the bond proposal also could hurt the Valley's economy by making it harder in future years for high school graduates to get the higher education and training demanded by our growth industries.
Proposition 401 is needed to provide our community colleges with the capital they must have to keep pace with growth and the changing work-force demands of business and industry. The Tribune strongly urges voters to say YES to Proposition 401.