Sinclair looks to levy money to close ‘skills gap’

Health, manufacturing programs would receive more funding.

By Lance Lambert

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Until he moved to Center-ville from eastern Ohio, Philip Meyers had never heard of a community college asking for a levy.

But in Ohio, it’s not all that unusual. According to the Ohio Department of Higher Education, six of the 23 community colleges in the state augment their tuition revenue with property tax levies.

Sinclair is one of them, and it is asking voters on Nov. 3 to support a 1-mill levy that the school says will allow it to ramp up its health and manufacturing programs. It is the only countywide levy in Montgomery County, and would cost the owner of a $100,000 home about $35 a year.

That’s in addition to the $98 those homeowners already pay for Sinclair’s 3.2-mill levy, which passed in 2008.

Sinclair President Steven Johnson said the new money would be used to build a health center, which would

house its nearly 40 health science programs and be equipped with the “latest” simulation labs and clinics. The center would be built on a parking lot between 4th and 5th streets, and attached to the Sifferlin Center.

“In order to have enough trained health care workers, and people to work in manufacturing, we need to increase capacity and we need to do it faster,” Johnson said

The levy, which would raise about $8.5 million, would also help the school prepare students to address the “skills gap” that employers point to as a barrier to growing jobs in the region, said Johnson.

“Sinclair has tremendous momentum going in workforce and job training programs like UAS, health science careers, advanced manufacturing, IT and first responders,” he said.

But to people like Meyers, another levy request is too much to ask, particularly for those on fixed incomes.

“And next year there isn’t a Social Security increase,” he said.

Meyers said if local businesses are “begging for employees” they should carry more of the burden for Sinclair’s job training programs.

“I got grandkids in the area, and I’m all for education,” he said. “But what if they want to go to another school?”

Final push

Supporters know any levy is a tough sell in a county that already has its share of levies. Montgomery County property own ers, because of those levies, have the second highest property tax burden in Ohio.

With just nine days until Election Day, Citizens for Sinclair — the group pushing Issue 13 — is out in full force, from taking to the airwaves to handing out yard signs and announcing endorsements.

Johnson remains confident, but he says the outcome will depend on turnout.

To ensure they get that turnout, Citizens for Sinclair has spent slightly more than $450,000 during the most recent reporting period, and has about $263,000 on hand.

More ads are planned for the campaign’s final days.

Johnson said a big selling point for the school is its value to local students.

Some voters have questioned why Sinclair isn’t asking voters in Warren County — where the school opened a campus in 2007 — to pony up.

But, said Johnson, “By law, we keep it here. And it’s spent on our (Montgomery County) students.”

Sinclair officials point out that Montgomery County students pay $99 per credit hour, while students from other Ohio counties pay an additional $50 per credit hour.

Currently, Sinclair pulls in slightly more than $27 million each year from property taxes.

Strengthen finances

Sinclair officials say the community college doesn’t have debt and its financial outlook is solid.

“We’ve only bought and paid for things we could afford,” Johnson said.

However, the school says it has faced its share of financial hurdles, including lower-than-expected levy funds as a result of falling property values.

In 2016, the college is expected to receive $700,000 less from property taxes than it did in the most recent fiscal year.

That’s one reason the college’s revenue is projected to fall by $3 million to $124.2 million from fiscal year 2015 to 2016.

Meanwhile, its 2016 expenses are expected to drop by $4.2 million, to $121.4 million.

Aside from levy funding, the college will rely mostly on state appropriations and tuition to cover 2016 expenses. Those revenue sources also have dipped.

The new levy would run for eight years. In 2017 or 2018, the college will move to renew its 2008 levy, and after that

— if the new levy passes

— the college would have a levy on the ballot every five years.

Sinclair says having two levies could keep the institution’s finances secure, in case one were to fail. That’s not an uncommon levy strategy. In fact, the Montgomery County Human Services levies have a similar setup.

“One of things that we would like to do is not have all of our eggs in one basket, and have balanced levies and spread the risk,” Johnson said last month.

Grant Neeley, associate professor and interim chair of political science at the University of Dayton, says Sinclair and other institutions that have two levies run the risk of confusing voters.

“I think levies are confusing for most people anyway,” Neeley said.

He added that it’s also possible the increase in levies could cause voter fatigue.

Local support

Earlier this month, more than a dozen local officials gathered in the Kettering Tower to announce their support for the Sinclair levy. The gathering included politicians on both sides of the aisle.

“We don’t agree on much, but we need to educate our future leaders,” said Sheriff Phil Plummer, the chairman of the Montgomery County Republican Party.

The levy doesn’t have much organized opposition, aside from keepsinclairfair.org — a webpage that has raised less than a $1,000.

The community college has had a great track record with passing levies. The school passed its first levy in 1966, and has passed each renewal since.

Johnson says that’s because Sinclair has had a good relationship with the county during its 128-year existence. In addition, Johnson said those levy funds helped the school build technical programs that rival the best community colleges in the country.

He said if the levy fails Sinclair won’t be able to expand its offerings and “we will be facing (job) shortages in some key areas.”

Local hospitals are among the levy’s biggest backers. Of the $247,220 raised by Citizens for Sinclair from July 1 through October 14, $130,000 came from the Kettering Health Network and Premier Health Partners.

“We have more employees of our hospitals, of our 33,000 employees at 28 hospitals, that come from Sinclair than any other educational institution,” said Bryan Bucklew, president and CEO of the Greater Dayton Area Hospital Association.

Bucklew says his organization provides Sinclair with a vacancy report, so the community college knows what areas are in highest demand.

“This ranges from IT to medical technicians, surgeon technicians, phlebotomist,” he said. “Those certificate and associates degree programs at Sinclair provide for great quality training and great quality employees.”