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Plenty of possible construction work on Tuesday’s ballots

By Joe Lanane

Confidence and criticism are characterizing Madison Area Technical College’s request that voters Tuesday approve $134 million worth of construction work on five campuses.

The college is asking voters in all or parts of 12 counties in south-central Wisconsin to favor $51 million for upgrades at three Madison campuses; construction of a $43 million health services building in Madison; $7.3 million to expand classrooms on campuses in Reedsburg, Portage, Watertown and Fort Atkinson; and $32.4 million for outdoor vocational training courses, storm water system upgrades and property acquisition.

The work is necessary because the college has faced a 22 percent enrollment increase during the past five years, said Roger Price, the college’s vice president of infrastructure services.

“There is a point in time, and we think we’re really close to it,” he said, “when we won’t have the capacity to serve the students who come through those doors.”

But need is not always enough to persuade voters to check the “yes” box.

Barry Burden, political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said Madison Area Technical College has not done enough to spread the word to such a wide range of voters.

“Without any information beforehand, their instinct is going to be to vote no,” Burden said. “Even if it’s a good decision, the school has to make an argument the investment is worth it.”

The college began talking to voters when project planning started five years ago, Price said. He said the college spent the time since then working with more than 100 community organizations and small groups throughout the college’s district.

Price said construction of the health services building — the centerpiece of the referendum — could begin by July 1 if the referendum succeeds.

But local officials throughout the district said there has been very little talk locally about the referendum, which might not bode well for the college.

John Wilmet, Fort Atkinson city manager, said college representatives visited to discuss renovations to the city’s regional campus and other campus buildings, but he still has no gauge on local reaction.

“I hear virtually no talk about it throughout the community, so I’m not sure how well informed they’re going to be,” Wilmet said. “Any time you’re looking at a referendum that spends more money, it tends to be pretty tough to get those things through.”

It is the first time since 1974 the college has asked voters to approve a construction referendum, Price said. That is why project proponents are optimistic about Tuesday’s vote.

“It’s not like the school is coming back to voters every couple of years asking the community to make an investment in them, so I think people will recognize that,” said Delora Newton, executive vice president of the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce, which endorsed the project.

Newton said the area would benefit immediately from the estimated 2,400 construction jobs created, and in the long run through educating people who will contribute to the local economy.

Still, Columba County Supervisor John Tramburg said the college will struggle convincing voters, especially those struggling to support themselves and their families. The odds might be better, he said, if the money was more equally divided among all of the campuses, including Columbia County’s Portage campus.

“I would rather see more money dedicated for outlying campuses, but with the limited financial situation, we could all use more money right now,” Tramburg said. “But there isn’t any, so taxpayers have to pay for it.”

Burden said he credits the college for its mission, but questions the strategy.

“The people they are talking to,” he said, “aren’t the ones who actually vote on Election Day.”

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