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November 03, 2011 8:49 am

NWC building proposal bumped up on priority list

Written by Ilene Olson

College commission changes how capital construction projects are prioritized

A proposed classroom building project for Northwest College moved up last week from No. 11 to No. 4 on a prioritized list of capital construction projects for Wyoming community colleges.

That happened as a result of changes to the Wyoming Community College Commission’s formula for prioritizing proposed capital construction projects. The commission made those changes Friday at the request of Gov. Matt Mead and legislative leaders.

Commission executive director Jim Rose said he recommended the changes, and the commission supported them.

“My interpretation of the commentary on the budget received since late August is that there were some concerns by the governor and others about some of the types of the buildings on the list and their relative priority,” he said. “With the help of my staff, we worked on further refinements of the capital construction model, which now places stronger emphasis on education and academic facilities.”

Three of the top five projects included in the initial list of 14 projects were an agriculture and rodeo complex for Casper College, an equine center for Central Wyoming College and a student center remodel and expansion for Northern Wyoming Community College District.

The model changes also add building projects previously approved by the Legislature into the building inventory for community colleges.

“Two of the projects that the Legislature passed this session were not in the formula,” he said. “The commission had nothing to do with their authorization, so the commission was out of the loop. Once we inserted those two projects, that changed the order (of the list) already.”

The commission also scaled the list of college building projects proposed for state funding back to six projects, down from the original list of 14 that was included in the biennial request the commission sent to the governor in August.

“It was very clear from the governor’s meeting last Thursday that he felt that a 14-project list was too much to consider,” Rose said.

The State Building Commission, comprised of Wyoming’s five elected officials, including Mead, also balked at a list of 14 college building projects. Citing the last-minute nature of the request, and its length, the Building Commission on Oct. 19 tabled consideration of the list. The commission voted to let the governor’s office and legislative appropriations committee handle it.

“They (the State Building Commission) are a recommending body to the governor,” he said. “My sense is that the governor is supportive of some form of capital construction funding for the community colleges.”

Rose said the Wyoming Community College Commission intends to make last week’s changes to the model permanent, but that won’t happen until commission members begin the review process again next year.

Northwest College President Paul Prestwich attended Friday’s meeting and welcomed the changes.

“The Wyoming Community College had been adjusting their model to account for the type of space within each facility (and) gave more weight to academic buildings ... and, after adjusting their model, it created some fairly significant changes in their rankings,” he said. “We’re pleased with that, and pleased with where our project is situated in with those that are being forwarded to the governor for his consideration.”

Another significant change the commission made was a requirement that each college contribute the equivalent of six mills of the valuation of its district. In Northwest College’s case, that equates to about $5 million, Prestwich said.

But the commission also voted to include design costs in the total figure for capital construction costs, he said. That increases the estimated cost of NWC’s classroom building project to about $15 million, he said.

Rose noted that this is the first year a data-driven ranking system has been used to prioritize college building project proposals.

“We’re in kind of uncharted water,” he said. “I think the evolution of the process is taking us a little closer to what I’m hearing from policy makers as to how much they want to fund.”

UW president discusses building projects

During his visit to Northwest College last month, University of Wyoming President Tom Buchanan said he had no magic solution for colleges striving to get state funding for building projects.

“You’re going to find ... probably a more receptive political environment to advance capital construction projects than in the not too distant past,” he said. “Gov. Mead is a vocal advocate for the community colleges and all they do.”

Distance from the state capital is one of the biggest challenges for Northwest College, he added.

“It’s pretty easy to be left out,” he said.

Buchanan said the university has it easier than the colleges because “we have one set of priorities and one voice. When you have seven sets of priorities and one voice, it’s more difficult.”

His advice for community colleges: Make sure your priorities are known. Make sure they’re good, and spend a lot of time talking to legislators.

Buchanan said the university has three levels of studies and planning it goes through before a building project is forwarded for state funding: An internal study at the first level, followed by a second, more extensive study that includes a cost estimate. If those studies prove the project is viable, the proposal moves forward for funding and eventual construction.

“Our priorities are articulated, put into print, talked about, re-articulated and reintroduced,” he said. “On average, we probably have 10 years from the time we define a building need and the time we take it to fruition. Ten years sounds way too long, but the first half of that is just getting people used to the idea, size and scope, and those kinds of things.”

Speaking with one voice is important, he said.

“When we speak with a common voice, we are a force to be reckoned with. When we don’t, people just want us to go away.”

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