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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Bitterroot Valley Community College mill levy request heads to voters

A sign outside of Bitterroot College-UM in Hamilton, MT.
Corin Cates-Carney
Montana Public Radio
A sign outside of Bitterroot College-UM in Hamilton, MT.

Two years ago, Ravalli County voters approved creation of a brand new independent, local community college. They simultaneously rejected a mill levy to pay for it. Program backers haven’t given up and a new mill levy request was mailed out to voters Friday.

Marci Smith can rattle off dozens of reasons why she hopes voters approve the mill levy request to fund Bitterroot Valley Community College. But for Smith, BVCC’s Trustee Chair, it ultimately boils down to one thing.

"Autonomy is probably the number one issue at hand," she says.

Smith says the Bitterroot Valley needs an independent community college that can most effectively cater to its own students and business needs. The independent Bitterroot Valley Community College doesn’t exist yet. Hamilton’s Bitterroot College is affiliated with the University of Montana, but according to Smith, “It’s not even officially a college per se."

Bitterroot College UM offers Associate degrees, high school dual-credit opportunities and continuing education programs for adults.

Smith says the number of credits offered by UM is steadily dwindling and she worries about long-term funding.

The levy in front of voters would cost homeowners about $13 per $100,000 of the taxable value of a home. Smith says that will annually raise over $912,000, which would cover a quarter of BVCC’s costs. Student tuition would pay another quarter, with the state of Montana picking up the rest of the tab.

She describes BVCC as a community investment at half the price of a four-year program. Smith says an educated population is a net benefit to taxpayers, adding savings are realized in, "social services, incarceration and so forth. Also, more taxes come in because people who graduate and utilize a community college tend to earn more money and pay more taxes.”

But some locals are skeptical.

"Seeking prudent financial judgment is not anti-education in the least,” Phil Tummarello of Stevensville says

He says he appreciates the value of quality education. Tummarello, who owns a farm in the area, tells MTPR he supported creation of the BVCC’s district back in 2020, but opposed the original mill levy and will vote against this one as well.

He says the last thing Ravalli County residents need is yet another permanent tax.

"My property taxes went up 800 bucks this year. So, that’s a big increase. Couple that with inflation and the cost of fuel — there’s going to come a point where that one extra straw on the back of the camel and all that stuff. Financially there are people here who are really struggling.”

Mill levy proponents readily acknowledge the serious economic challenges Montanans are facing, but Trustee Chair Marci Smith reiterates that a Bitterroot Valley Community College would ultimately be a net economic driver for Ravalli County.

If the mill levy request fails next month, the BVCC district will remain in place, but Smith predicts the existing Bitterroot College UM program will likely slowly disappear after a few years.

If voters approve the levy, BVCC is expected to open its doors by the fall of 2023

BVCC mill levy ballots must be returned by May 3rd at 8 p.m

O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the University of Montana School of Journalism. His first career job out of school was covering the 1995 Montana Legislature. When the session wrapped up, O’Brien was fortunate enough to land a full-time position at the station as a general assignment reporter. Feel free to drop him a line at
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