Education

Butler County wants a tax break; Wichita students might end up paying for it

Grizwald Gruffy the Grizzly, Butler Community College's mascot, keeps watch over the campus.
Grizwald Gruffy the Grizzly, Butler Community College's mascot, keeps watch over the campus. The Wichita Eagle

The first thing you need to know is that about 80 percent of the students at Butler Community College come from outside Butler County.

The second thing you need to know is that only Butler County residents pay property taxes to support the college.

Local state legislators and county commissioners aren't happy about that. So they're pressuring the college board to reduce its property tax mill levy by millions of dollars — and make up for it by raising tuition on out-of-county students, mostly from Wichita.

"When we are putting in $14 million and we have 2,000 students from (Butler) County, that equates to $7,000 per student if they're full-time," said Rep. Kristey Williams, R-Augusta. "We know that the value crosses our county line and heads back to Wichita most of the day. What we're asking is that there be fairness in the way that we look at funding."

The college president, Kimberly Krull, said she hasn't calculated what the college would have to charge in additional tuition to make up for a multimillion-dollar cut in tax support.

"We wouldn't be able to recoup those tax dollars (with tuition)," she said, because students would simply go somewhere else.

The college is the county's largest employer with about 1,440 employees.

Out-of-county students pay $14 million in tuition and fees — about the same amount that the local property tax generates, Krull said.

In addition, those students spend an estimated $6 million a year with local businesses while they're in town attending classes.

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Butler College President Kimberly Krull says the college couldn't raise tuition enough to offset millions of dollars in tax cuts. Dion Lefler The Wichita Eagle

About 20 percent of the 12,000-member student body comes from within Butler County, Krull said.

Approximately 60 percent comes from neighboring Sedgwick County. The remaining 20 percent is a mix of students from other Kansas counties and out-of-state and international students, she said.

At present, out-of-county students pay 16 percent more for tuition than Butler County residents. A standard credit hour for an in-county student costs $67. Outsiders pay $78.

All students pay $31 per credit hour in college fees.

Krull said without the out-of-county students, the college would be a shadow of its current self.

"That enrollment is critical for the work that we do," Krull said. "Those additional students allow more classes, more robust classes, larger opportunities for students as far as degree pathways, certificate pathways."

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Butler County homeowners pay an annual property tax rate of 20.063 mills to support the college.

Williams said if that was indexed to the number of credit hours actually earned by Butler County students, it should be about 5.4 mills.

She said she's proposing cutting the rate by five mills, to about 15.

That would slice $3.5 million off the college's property tax revenue, reducing it from $14.2 million a year to about $10.7 million.

Williams has sought support from the Butler County commissioners. The commission has considered — but not passed — a resolution supporting a tax cut, pending ongoing discussions with the college board.

The resolution would not be legally binding on the college board, which sets its own tax rate. But it could carry political weight because the same set of voters elect the county commissioners and the college trustees.

The first in a series of joint meetings between the commissioners and trustees was held last week. It drew a standing-room-only crowd to a meeting room built for 90 at the El Dorado Civic Center.

At that meeting, commissioners made it clear they sympathize with Williams and are under pressure from their constituents to cut property taxes.

Commission Chairman Dan Woydziak said he could see how a cut to 5.4 mills, which would take away $10.1 million, would be devastating for the college.

"I don't think that is a realistic possibility, but I do think by raising some out-of-district tuitions, we have an opportunity to lower the property mill by coming up with additional dollars through tuition," he said.

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Butler County commissioners Dan Woydziak and Marc Murphy, and County Manager Will Johnson, listen to a presentation from Butler Community College during a town meeting. Dion Lefler The Wichita Eagle

Williams and the commissioners, especially those whose districts are closest to Wichita, say the college tax is stifling development in their area.

"The most important thing is that the residents and property owners of Butler County having a 20-mill differential (in property taxes) is not good for our economy," Williams said. "It is not good for our builders, it is not good for our Realtors and I've been hearing about this long before I ever was a representative."

Commissioner Jeff Masterson, the older brother of state Sen. Ty Masterson, said the tax differential encourages developers to invest on the Sedgwick County side of the county line rather than the Butler County side, particularly in the growing 21st Street corridor.

"In the last 10 years they've built a lot of homes and they are advertising the Andover school district and the Sedgwick County taxes," he said.

According to the Butler County clerk's office, the owner of a $200,000 home in Andover pays $3,782 in annual property tax. Of that, about $462 goes to support the college.

The Sedgwick County clerk's office said the owner of a similar home on the Wichita side of the border would pay $3,016 in property tax.

It's not a completely apples-to-apples comparison. Sedgwick County residents also pay one cent on the dollar for sales taxes supporting local services, while Butler County's sales tax is a fourth as much.

College trustees say they're annoyed that only the county that hosts a community college pays property tax to support it.

It wasn't always that way. The state was supposed to provide colleges with general support dollars to compensate for students from out of the county.

But like many other state programs, that got cut when the Legislature ran into budget trouble.

"I wish we could find a statewide solution to fixing this inequality," said college Trustee Ron Engelbrecht. "We've got a statewide system that is being unfairly funded by 19 of the counties in the state and the rest are basically freeloaders."

But he said it wouldn't be realistic to pass a deep tax cut and raise tuition, because Wichita students could just as easily bail out of Butler and go to another community college.

"We're in competition with other folks who serve this region — Cowley, Hutchinson, Pratt (community colleges)," he said. "All of them have very similar mill rates. All of them have very similar mixes in terms of 20-80 percentage. And every student that we give up, they'll accept at probably close to their current (tuition) rate.

"So we can't get this differential too far out of whack or we start into a death spiral of enrollment."

Hopes for a state solution are dim at best, said Sen. Masterson, R-Andover.

"That battle is tough in Topeka because we are outnumbered," he said. "It's 87 counties versus 18. It's very tough to overcome."

The problem is that the state has given community colleges a regional mission but expects them to fulfill it with county funding, he said.

He said he tried to fix that when he was chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, which handles the budget.

He said he got a budget provision all the way to a House-Senate conference committee, the next-to-the-last step to it becoming a law. But "I was taken from the committee and replaced . . . to remove that piece," he said.

(FILE VIDEO -- March 26, 2018) Lawmakers in Kansas allow for more than $1 billion in credits and exemptions. The state also has no system for regularly reviewing if the credits and exemptions should continue.

Dion Lefler; 316-268-6527, @DIonKansas
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