Times are tough all over and many colleges are looking to get every penny they can. But, thanks to the actions of a Texas community college district, taxpayers in Houston are catching a small break.
Last week, Houston Community College’s Board of Trustees unanimously approved a decrease in the property tax rate it levies on local residents to fund the operations of its six campuses. Art Tyler, the college’s chief operating officer and deputy chancellor, said the tax rate would be cut from .081 to .077 per $100 of assessed real estate value. For example, the owner of a $100,000 house would save about $3.57. While the tax cut is small, college officials say it sends a strong message, even though they will lose $190,000 in total revenue.
“The economy is clearly being challenged severely,” said Mary Spangler, the college’s chancellor, acknowledging that local taxpayers are concerned about their resources. “We want to at least express that we’re aware of that and make a cut, when in fact the board could have kept the tax rate the same or even raised it. We’re at a crossroads and wanted to take time to say that we hear, we understand and we want to be as affordable as we can.”
The tax rate cut will come at a time when the college’s maintenance and operations budget will also be significantly trimmed. Tyler said the $241 million budget will be cut by about 8.4 percent or $4.1 million, adding that most of the savings will come from cost-effective institutional changes suggested by the college’s faculty and staff.
When Spangler asked her colleagues to suggest ways the college could save money last year, she received 563 unique suggestions. After aggregating and categorizing the submissions, Spangler and her staff distilled the top 13 ideas  to adopt. The ideas included standardizing the college’s branding and limiting printing and copying.
“Larger institutions have more options in terms of cutting costs and positioning and reorganizing savings,” Spangler said. “That’s one of the reasons we have greater flexibility.”
Though the college has become more efficient with its resources, it will spend more money this year on debt service than in years past. Tyler said the college will spend almost $31 million -- up about $3.9 million from last year – in large part because of $55 million in new construction to accommodate its rapidly growing enrollment. He added that fall enrollment is up 10 percent, although not all of those students will be attending class at the college’s brick and mortar campuses. Online and hybrid enrollment is up nearly 28 percent. Future investments, Tyler said, would not just be in new construction, but also in new technology to accommodate these students.
“Instead of doing things the same old way, we forced ourselves to act more effectively,” Tyler said, noting that the increased revenue from tuition and fees would also help justify the lower tax rate. “Most of what we’ve done recently has been effective and put more money in the classroom. At the same time, we were able to lower the burden of tax on our community.”
In light of tight economic times, however, Tyler said, salaries at the college have fallen behind other community colleges in the state. Though the college’s board approved a 4.3 percent raise in September, some worry the 2.2 percent raise it suggested for the spring may have to be put on hold given the current financial climate. Tyler, however, said the board has not withdrawn its commitment to the raise and did not think the newly approved tax cut would jeopardize it.
College officials maintain that, despite the recent tax cut, the institution is on solid financial footing. The tax cut, they argue, is just another way of being a good steward of the taxpayers’ money.
“This decision wasn’t made for political reasons but based on what is best for the voters and our economy,” Tyler said. "Some of those who we serve are hurting, after having just gone through Hurricane Ike. This was more than a gesture for political capital.”