Efforts by petition organizers Monday to convince the Cowley College Trustee Board to repeal a property tax increase for building maintenance was unsuccessful after a long discussion that ended in a 4-2 vote to uphold the increase.

Board Trustees Gary Wilson and Brian Sanderholm voted against the increase. Glennis Zimmerman, a Sumner County resident, abstained. The .75 mil levy tax applies only in Cowley County.

Before the vote took place, Cowley president Dr. Dennis Rittle outlined why the funds were needed. Ireland Hall needed renovation and the Brown Center theater had not seen any updates since it opened.

The Walker Tech facility needs a boiler and the college also needs kitchen upgrades, Rittle said.

Cowley continues to have one of the lowest mil levies in the state, he added; only four of 19 community colleges in Kansas are lower. In fact, Rittle said, even with the added mill increase, the college’s rate would be lower than it was in 1998.

Petition organizers Brandon Every, Kanyon Ginger and Michael Bergaginini were given the opportunity to present their case before a vote was called.

Every said that 80 percent of the signatures needed to force a public vote on the increase were obtained within the first two weeks. But shutdown orders due to the coronavirus halted progress.

Bergagini said he personally visited 158 houses to obtain signatures, and only two people refused to sign.

The tax increase is expected to raise about $1 million through five years and would cost a $100,000 home an estimated $11 per year. 

Trustees approved the hike in February, but a petition drive was launched to either force a public vote or force trustees to repeal it.

Every said he realized that many people could probably afford the increase, but the community as a whole was suffering and more businesses are projecting layoffs.

“Everyone’s got to hang on to what they’ve got,” he said. “Times are tough, times are tight.”

Board chair Harold Arnett asked whether the group had made extra efforts after the shutdown orders, such as advertising, mailings or going door to door.

Gingher said money for those options wasn’t available, and it wasn’t feasible to go door to door because people were trying to self-distance.

“As soon as the stay-at-home order was issued, that’s what people did, they stayed at home,” she said. “We also didn’t want to violate the governor’s order.”

Trustee Gary Wilson described some of the items as wants rather than needs.

“We need to pull back and find money to do this, instead of every time we need money, go to the well, hit the tax base, hit the taxpayer,” he said.

Wilson said the fact that 800 signatures were collected in just two weeks should give the college a pretty good idea of how the community feels.

“They’re saying, ‘We’re paying enough right now — we have to tighten up, that’s what you guys need to do,’” he said.

Trustee Nancy Burger said she appreciated the petition efforts, but also wondered how people could spend $10 at a restaurant, but not want to help the college.

Gingher, who also is an Arkansas City city commissioner, on Tuesday said she was disappointed with the board’s decision, but not surprised.

“We’re going to forge on,” she said. “We’re going to pursue whatever avenues we need to protect the citizens and give them a voice — we’re going to fight on.”

She would not elaborate on those plans.

Arnett said at the meeting that he wished that the citizens’ group could have gotten enough signatures to put the tax increase on the ballot. He said any tax increase unleashes opposition and complaints.

Arnett, a former Cowley College vice president, added that he hears a lot of complaints about the cost of the college’s signage.

“Look at all the money they spent on the damn signs,” he said. “I’ve heard it. You’ve heard it. Well, we can’t auction them off and recover the money.”

Arnett said the board of trustees can’t undo past decisions, but can commit to greater accountability and transparency.


Board vacancies

The board also discussed recruiting people interested in the board seats vacated recently by Bob Juden and Jill Long.

Publication of the open positions with application information is required by law. Individuals considering the position will be asked to submit letters of interest for the board to review.

Several board members, though, said a more definitive selection procedure needs to be in place before advertising the openings.

Zimmerman said she wants to know how the decision to select from the applicants will be made.

“Putting something out there without having anything in place, if they came to us, what would we say?” she asked. “I don’t think we have an answer.”

The board voted 4 to 2 to authorize publication, with trustees Zimmerman and Burger voting against.

Trustees Zimmerman, Burger and Ned Graham were appointed to develop an applicant selection process for the board to approve.

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