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Legislator’s proposal would end local property taxation, control of Western

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Wisconsin’s technical colleges would no longer have authority to levy property taxes under a proposal by a state legislator.

Western Technical College officials are wary of the recommendations, which would also reshape state’s system of tech colleges, contingent on a 2014 referendum vote, to make them completely dependent on state funding.

The proposal comes from Rep. Garey Bies, R-Sister Bay, who is waiting for co-sponsors before he submits a draft of his recommendations to House leadership for bill assignment.

“For me, it’s a pretty good win for the property taxpayers,” Bies said.

Morna Foy, president of the Wisconsin Technical College System, declined to comment on Bies’ plans until they are introduced as a bill.

Under Bies’ proposal, local institutions would transfer all assets to the state. Workers and top college officials would also answer to state leadership, not the local board of directors.

The local board would no longer be able to levy property taxes. State sales and use tax would rise 1 cent to fund what Bies called a “tax shift” — a new source of money to replace lost funding from local property taxes.

Local districts would no longer be allowed to issue bonds. In fact, the only responsibility left to local boards would be advising a “district director,” appointed by the state.

Voters would have the final say if Bies’ proposal becomes law, with a referendum scheduled for the 2014 spring elections.

More than half of Western’s budget is funded by local property taxes — about $24.7 million a year. The district also collected about $10.5 million in property taxes to cover debt service.

By requiring the referendum, Bies said, his proposal gives voters the chance to decide whether they want to shoulder the growing burden of tech college costs, giving them a chance at a “very good tax break.”

“They get to decide whether this is a good plan or not a good plan,” Bies said.

The changes would take effect in July 2015.

Western stands to lose local control if lawmakers take away property taxes and undercut the authority of the local board, Western President Lee Rasch said.

That control helps the college respond to trends in the job market with new classes and programs, Rasch said.

“We’re going to be more responsive to local employers if we’re not waiting in a queue,” Rasch said.

But Bies said local control is already limited. Unlike K-12 school boards, tech college boards are comprised of appointees, not elected officials.

“They don’t have to answer to anybody,” Bies said. “I don’t know if local control is there.”

Western went to referendum for in November, getting voters’ permission to borrow $80 million for upgrades and additions to school buildings.

That wouldn’t be possible under the changes recommended by Bies, Rasch said.

“If we don’t control the budget, we don’t have a choice in doing these things,” Rasch said.

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