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CWC having trouble getting reimbursed for project

Jun 29, 2012 - By Joshua Scheer, Staff Writer

The college and the Wyoming Community College Commission are at odds over payments regarding the health and science center.

Central Wyoming College president Jo Anne McFarland laid out payment problems regarding the health and science center and hinted at possible legal action against the Wyoming Community College Commission during the college's Board of Trustees meeting June 20.

During a construction update, associate vice president for administrative services Ron Granger said the college was having trouble with commission staff reimbursing construction costs. He said the WCCC would not pay the bills until it has been given an attorney general's opinion. Commission staff has asked for an opinion from the Wyoming Attorney General's Office on how reimbursement should take place. Granger is concerned about how long this could take.

"We don't know how they're going to disperse the funds," he said.

Granger said CWC was under the impression that the $6.5 million allocated by the State Legislature in 2011 to help fund construction would be paid "as we go."

"Now the commission is saying they don't agree with that idea," he said. "That's really been the quandary that we're in."

WCCC executive director Jim Rose said that the fact his agency wasn't involved in the budgeting for the project makes reimbursement more complicated. CWC received the money through a separate bill instead of through the commission's budget.

"We consulted with the (Wyoming State Auditor's Office), and they had concerns," Rose said. "I was advised by the auditor and the governor's office to seek advice from the attorney general."

The auditor's office's main concern, he said, was that if the project was completed under budget and the money given to CWC as a grant, no state funds would be reimbursed. But if it was paid half and half with each bill, then the state could possibly have some money left over.

Rose said his office will abide by the attorney general's opinion either way.

"We really simply want to do what we are obliged by the law to do," he said.

He added that he has told the attorney general's office that the matter is urgent, but he understands that this could set a precedent for future construction projects.

With construction having started in May, bills are already starting to pile up and McFarland wants to take action.

"I understand that another meeting with the governor took place just today, hopefully in an attempt to resolve the issue," she said. "I think we're at the point I would like board authorization to take this matter forward to the community college commission itself because the reimbursement hang-up is totally on the part of the commission's staff. It may or may not be on behalf of the commission."

She said the college already paid the first $306,000 invoice, and the possibility of not receiving the $6.5 million "is no small matter."

"At some point ... we are going to have a really big problem on our hands," she said. "I think upon consultation with the board attorney, I think it's very important to bring this matter forward at or before their (Aug. 2) commission meeting."

Granger said that by August, bills up to $1.3 million could have accrued, and without reimbursement, construction would eventually have to stop.

McFarland said she wants to "exhaust all remedies ... before we consider taking legal action."

If other avenues fail, she said the college could "take legal action to essentially require the commission executive director to do his job as directed by the Legislature."

Board member Roger Gose moved to give McFarland permission to take the issue to the commission.

Board member Frank Welty thought CWC should slow down.

"I do not think we should be doing something like this at this point," he said.

Welty said a letter state Sen. Eli Bebout, R-Riverton, wrote to WCCC about the issue was, in places, "incendiary."

Bebout later said he didn't send a letter, but he did send a "quick e-mail" to staff.

"We thought it was all very clear," he said of himself, Gov. Matt Mead and state Sen. John Schiffer, R-Sheridan, who all worked to put the matching funds bill together.

"I don't agree with them," he said of the commission staff. "I think they're wrong."

"If we were in session, we'd put together a bill to take care of this," Bebout continued.

Possibly suspending construction "would be the ultimate stupidity" on the commission's part, he said, adding that it could "initiate lawsuits."

"I hope common sense prevails in this situation," Bebout said.

Rose said one legislator, he did not give a name, has accused him of personally withholding funds from the project.

"I know a lot of the folks at CWC are upset," he said. "We aren't intent on holding up this process any more than anyone else."

"I do not think this is a battle we want to get in publicly with the staff and the commission," Welty said.

Trustee Scott Phister said, "I trust that it will be done diplomatically."

McFarland assured the trustees that she was not intent on taking other means, but "bills need to be paid."

Trustee Judy Pedersen said it was her understanding the commission staff was acting on precedent.

"I'm kind of offended by the anger I see from the different factions," she said. "I think it's the wrong approach. ... I think we need to play nice."

Board member Charlie Krebs said it appeared to be a kind of "power play," noting concerns Casper College has had with reimbursement for one of its buildings.

Pedersen suggested waiting to vote until the board's July meeting, but board chair Caroline Mills said if they can get on the commission's agenda now, it can be removed later should an agreement be reached.

The motion to send McFarland to WCCC passed 5-2, with Welty and Pedersen voting no.

Later, the board voted to have an executive session before the July 18 meeting, covering "potential litigation and personnel."