CRYSTAL LAKE – The most talked about and divisive issue that has been debated in the months leading up to the April 9 election for a trio of seats on the McHenry County College board has been the school’s proposed expansion plan.
The multimillion-dollar proposal to grow its health and wellness programs have drawn not only criticism, but multiple candidates determined to stop it. There are nine candidates – two incumbents and seven challengers – vying for the three seats, which have six-year terms.
MCC is exploring the cost and scope for expanding this curricula. An initial study found that a building to house classrooms and a fitness center would cost $42 million. Results from the second phase of the study are expected this summer.
The most vocal opponents of expansion are Chris Jenner and Thomas Wilbeck. The pair have argued that population projections and student enrollment don’t support expansion, and both take issue with one suggested way to pay for it.
The first study outlined alternative revenue bonds, which don’t require voter approval, as a possible way to fund the expansion.
“The current $42 [million] project, as proposed, does not require taxpayer approval,” Wilbeck wrote in the Northwest Herald’s candidate questionnaire. “Any project that subjects the taxpayer to payment liability should be approved by the taxpayers.”
Jenner expressed a similar sentiment.
“MCC has no plans to ask the voters to approve the project, when the funding method clearly puts property taxpayers at risk for a big tax hike,” Jenner wrote in his questionnaire. “Expansion of MCC may be warranted, but it needs to be approached with more common sense, openness and more accurate numbers.”
Other candidates have tempered their criticism of the expansion.
Molly Walsh disagrees with issuing alternate revenue bonds, and implored college officials to engage the community in the project.
“I do believe that the college will need to expand sometime in the future,” Walsh said. “My criteria for supporting any building expansion would be: the need for a specific expansion be adequately demonstrated; that the plan be fiscally sound; be environmentally sustainable; and community supported.”
Mike Smith supports college growth, but not without first asking the taxpayers if they do.
“It was reported that alternate revenue bonds would be considered as one of the options to finance facilities expansion, which appears to be driven by a desire to circumvent going to referendum,” he said. “Alternate revenue bonds do not eliminate the exposure to financial risk for the taxpayers, and I would not support such a financing option.”
Newcomer Arne Waltmire, in discussing the college’s $640 million, 40-year master plan, called into question the college’s supporting materials.
“It’s irresponsible to commit the college to an aggressive and expensive building plan without solid data to support it,” Waltmire said.
Erik Sivertsen believes the college should fill its empty classrooms before building new. College-provided figures show that classrooms are about 70 percent full at peak class times.
“I don’t like the plan as it is,” Sivertsen said. “I think there’s a lot of resources at the college to meet the needs ... without having to build new buildings,” he said.
Both longtime incumbents, Carol Larson and Barbara Walters, fully support growing the college.
“We do need to expand our health facilities, we do need to expand the training of nurses, we do need to expand the biological components that they’re teaching,” Larson said in an interview with the Northwest Herald Editorial Board. “And we don’t have enough classroom space right now.”
Walters called the long-term master plan simply a tool to guide the college toward the future. Demographics can change, she said.
“When you are talking about trustees at McHenry County College, [we have] to look into the future,” Walters said. “It’s very difficult to look into the future and be able to judge [demographics] today. ... The best laid plans do, and can be changed. What we are dealing with is a futuristic footprint.”
The incumbents are joined by challenger William Scott Alford, who supports the expansion but says it should be done without raising fees or tuition.
“Expansion is necessary,” he said. “The thing about the expansion is that it has to be done right. That means doing in a whole lot of homework, and holding a whole lot of people’s feet to the fire, and making sure that if we want something done, it comes in under the budget.”
McHenry County College Board of Trustees Candidates
Voters will select three to serve a six-year term• William Scott Alford• Chris Jenner• Carol Larson (i)• Erik Sivertsen• Mike Smith• Molly Walsh• Barbara Walters (i)• Arne Waltmire• Thomas Wilbeck