College lease renewed amid state budget crisis

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lewisburg's City Council has renewed Columbia State Community College's lease for its campus here as the college faces budgetary constraints passed along by the Tennessee Board of Regents' chancellor.

Mayor Bob Phillips brought the lease issue to the Council this month after the regular meeting agenda had been set for March 10, but Phillips persuaded his fellow elected leaders to conduct a special called meeting on the contract that's very favorable for the state.

In a cooperative community-building move more than a decade ago, the city and Marshall County provided land and the building for the community college, much in the same way local leaders paved the way in the late 1920s for what's now the University of Tennessee Dairy Research and Education Center. UT's Jersey dairy herd is now threatened by a tight state budget, and the mayor sought to take steps in the first week of March to protect the community college from state budget cuts.

Without saying so directly, the Council is reminding the state about its good deal here.

"State tax revenues are projected to be at least $1 billion less than the budget estimates for fiscal year 2008-09," Chancellor Charles Manning wrote to state college and university presidents one day before the Council's March 10 meeting. "The expected state tax revenue forecasts for fiscal year 2009-10 are not any better..."

Rent paid by Columbia State Community College for the campus here is $100 per month. It goes to Lewisburg because the city provided the land for the campus. Lewisburg, Marshall County and community leaders raised the money for the building.

The city sends mowing crews for maintenance outside, Phillips noted. The Marshall County Education Foundation helps pay for maintenance of the building inside.

Elizabeth McDow, director of the college campus on South Ellington Parkway, and local lawyer Lee Bowles of the education foundation spoke with the Council about the lease and various related issues during the special called meeting on March 17.

The heating and cooling system has been the biggest maintenance expense for the college, McDow said.

Enrollment has been up to 350 students at the campus, although a more stable average is about 300, McDow said. Yet now, with strained economic conditions, "a lot of students are taking more of their classes here."

It's part of a typical approach to a college degree. Instead of going directly to a four-year university or college right after high school, students might get their first two years completed close to home.

Or, as McDow noted, upper classmen might complete their degrees in, for example, microbiology here, instead of living on a campus elsewhere, or commuting.

Other advantages to the Lewisburg community, such as the college's spending on electricity and having a specialized educational service available were noted, and wholeheartedly supported by the Council and college advocates at the meeting.

However, as Manning said on March 9, lower revenues prompt spending reductions that "range from ... 12- to 15 percent at our community colleges."

Columbia State Community College spokesman Paul Hickey said in a telephone interview that "like all other state institutions, Columbia State is facing some challenges.

"We're taking this as an opportunity to re-evaluate our college's mission and determine what is critical to success," Hickey said. "Our goal is for Columbia State to effectively and efficiently deal with challenges, while limiting noticeable changes.

"None of the decisions have been made yet," he said late last week.

Asked about federal stimulus money, Hickey said there's a "misconception that this is going to solve all the problems. We may get (stimulus funds) but we don't know until the governor submits the budget. There's still going to be a shortfall."

Gov. Phil Bredesen was scheduled to deliver his state budget address in Nashville last night.

"While we can use the federal stimulus dollars to our advantage in these difficult times," the chancellor said on March 9, "they are not a permanent solution."

So as the chancellor anticipates fewer funds, Lewisburg's Council debated how this local community is already supporting the college campus here.

City Attorney Bill Haywood asked about liability insurance for the campus. McDow deferred to City Treasurer Connie Edde who said the city owned building is covered "like any other city building."

Meanwhile, Bowles explained the Education Foundation has limited resources and can provide only $3,000.

That was compared, during the meeting to city costs of some $10,000 and $20,000 a year.

"To see what happens at that campus," she said, "it's worth $1 million. When you give someone an education, it's immeasurable. The price of maintenance is an excellent deal for the city."

City and county panels for industrial development conduct meetings at the campus in a continuing effort to help area residents who have and are losing jobs from plant closures and work slowdowns.

The old lease was for five years and Phillips advocated that it be changed to four years so it would be shorter and coincide with the annual budget.

Councilwoman Quinn Brandon agreed with the four-year lease, noting that another array of elected Council members might be dealing with the issue in 2013.

The city treasurer noted maintenance of the building does not exceed the 10,000 budgeted for that, so when it's more than what's needed, then the balance might go to the Education Foundation to find another way to fund maintenance of the building.

Where the money is kept also became a point of discussion. It's not in the college's budget, City Manager Eddie Fuller said.

Such discussion arose during a non-voting workshop that was immediately followed by the special-set meeting.

Brandon moved to renew the contract and that was approved unanimously. She also called for changes to make it a four-year lease and verify that the city's maintenance funds remain with the city until exhausted, or the remainder donated to the Foundation. That, too, was approved unanimously.