Legislature slashes funding request for Wallace State/Oneonta campus

The Alabama Legislature last week slashed funding for the proposed Wallace State Oneonta Campus Center from the requested amount of $1 million per year for six years to $110,000 for only one year.

The cut came during a Senate/House conference meeting, after the requested amount had been approved by a Senate committee, according to Oneonta city manager Ed Lowe, who has been carefully monitoring the funding request for several months. The funding request was part of a longer list of projects submitted to the Legislature for approval by Wallace State.

Lowe said the outlook for getting the funding in this session of the Legislature was favorable as late as Tuesday morning – the day the request was unexpectedly cut later that afternoon. Asked what caused the sudden change in direction, Lowe said he couldn’t attribute it to any single factor or person. “There’s so much going on down there this session, there’s just no way to know exactly what happened, and no point trying to guess. Sometimes, things just happen.”

The Blount Countian talked to Lowe last week to get an insider’s view of the impact of the funding cut. First question: How serious is this development for the overall outlook for the project to provide Oneonta with a post-secondary educational institution? Lowe answered:

How serious is it?

“It’s serious enough that we’ll have to amend the first phase of the project, which means we’ll have to amend the size of the building, we’ll have to look at a phased construction plan that means it’ll take longer to complete, and may mean a somewhat smaller building at a different location, still in the same area, but not on the library site.” Lowe said it might mean the library may no longer be included as part of the college campus center building, but could be addressed later in a separate project.

“It’s a setback, but I’ll say that the commitment to the overall project hasn’t wavered at all, either with Oneonta or with Wallace State,” he said.“The directive given to me is to figure out what we’ve got to do now to keep things moving forward. There’s a strong sense that we’ll regret it, both from the standpoint of meeting the needs of students and parents as well as economic development needs of the city, if we don’t do whatever is necessary to get this postsecondary education capability here. Unless we can produce quality workforce training here in the community, as a city we can’t compete in economic development with other municipalities that can offer it to prospective businesses.

“As a partner, Wallace State is committed to this community. They’ve been delighted with the temporary campus location. We’ve already got 63 students signed up for the first term this summer, and that’s after only three days of online registration. We’re all happy with that as a good sign the idea is going to be welcomed by the community,” Lowe said.

How do you finance it now?

So how do you keep the project moving forward, in the face of a disastrous funding cut? Lowe answered:

“Like anything else, when Plan A doesn’t work out, you have to adjust your approach and look at other options. That’s what we’ll do. We’ll put other options on the table, let people consider them and decide what we can afford to do. We may have to develop a larger local commitment – ask our local partners to increase their support, maybe even search for additional local partners, or individuals who could make a difference with contributions.

“And although we didn’t get the funding we requested from the state, we are in the budget. Maybe that can be expanded later. There are also sources of state funds other than the education budget that we can explore further – ADECA (Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs), for example, and the Appalachian Regional Commission.”

What about the city itself?

Could Oneonta step up? Would it consider a bond issue to fund or partially fund the project? Lowe answered:

“Yes, I think the commitment is there to do whatever’s necessary. I’d say it’s likely we’ll have to consider a bond issue as we go forward.”

Lowe added that further public hearings will be conducted to keep citizens informed on the project’s status, on amendments and concessions that will be necessary, and on implications for financing.

The school board funding request

How does this development impact ongoing discussions with the Oneonta City Board of Education regarding their request for substantial new funding support from the city? Lowe answered:

“No doubt, it would have been easier to accommodate the school board’s request had we gotten the funding we requested from the state. But we didn’t. I want citizens to know that we’re going to try to meet the community’s needs to the very best of our ability, but we’ve got to do it without jeopardizing the city’s existing obligations. We’re not going to jeopardize those obligations we’re already committed to.”