Guest opinion: Gallagher’s unintended effect on rural Colorado
The story of Colorado Mountain College is inspiring and unique. Fifty years ago the citizens of Garfield, Lake, Eagle, Summit and Pitkin counties bucked the conventional thinking in Denver and voted to create a college in Colorado’s central mountains. This courageous and generous act — enhanced in 1982 by the addition of Steamboat Springs in Routt County — created CMC, a college that would reach some of the most remote areas of the state and remain generally independent of state control.
CMC’s importance to the communities of the central Colorado Rockies is very real and well-understood by individuals seeking to improve their basic skills; by others pursuing specialized certificates, associate or bachelor’s degrees or lifelong learning; and by employers reliant on the college for a trained workforce. The college operates more than a dozen facilities in mountain towns — campuses and centers that, without the college’s financial model, would likely not exist had the decision to build them been left to those on the Front Range.
The college is now one of the highest-performing open-access institutions in the country, provides tuition-free college to nearly 30 percent of high school students in the region, and delivers advanced training to the nurses, police officers, teachers and first responders across nine counties spanning 12,000 square miles. And, all of this is done while maintaining the lowest tuition in the entire state.
Unfortunately, a peculiar amendment in the Colorado Constitution threatens Colorado Mountain College’s independence and affordability.
Last Friday, the Colorado Mountain College board of trustees adopted a budget for the 2017-18 fiscal year. Reflecting very sound operational management and fiscal constraint, the budget kept costs below inflation while expanding investments in our region’s workforce and facilities. The budget was also a miner’s canary for the impending risks that threaten CMC and other locally supported public services.
In 2016-17, property values in our district increased at a healthy rate. Some regions saw values climb by as much as 18 percent. This should have been good news to local services funded by property taxes, but the reality was quite the opposite. Though property values grew, tax revenues fell, not because of any decisions by managers or officials in the mountains, but rather because of unyielding growth in the Denver metro region.
Over the past several years the population in the Denver metro area — and, by association, the number of new homes — has grown at a historic rate. The result is that this growth in just one part of the state has triggered a statewide adjustment in property taxes required by the Gallagher Amendment of the Colorado Constitution. This provision requires the Legislature to lower assessment levels across the entire state, which removes revenues from rural fire, water and sanitation districts; municipal governments and public protection agencies; and locally funded schools like CMC.
We join the growing assembly of rural leaders fearful that continued growth on the Front Range will wipe out the services that we all worked so hard to build and that make our communities safe and prosperous.
With support from the CMC board of trustees, my management team and I have begun research and due diligence into the options before us, keeping in mind our values of innovation and inclusivity. Over the coming months, we invite and encourage creativity and best thinking to address an issue largely out of our control, but one that has the very real potential to compromise the Western Slope communities we hold so dear.
Your local district college also stands ready to offer leadership and share potential solutions to preserve critical services including access to an affordable, high-quality postsecondary education for another 50 years.
Carrie Besnette Hauser is president and CEO of Colorado Mountain College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter at @CMCPresident.