After an eight-year quest to locate a public university in Ventura County, California State University officials said for the first time that the state's financial crisis may force them to abandon the project.
In a major shift in policy, Cal State officials are delaying their decision to condemn land west of Camarillo for the new campus until after Tuesday's election, an official told The Times. The ballot includes a $900-million higher-education bond measure that would provide crucial dollars needed for planning the Ventura County campus.
Cal State officials may be forced to drop plans for Ventura County if the ballot measure fails or local governments do not follow through with verbal promises to help with building roads or other needed improvements, said David Leveille, director of institutional relations for the 362,000-student system. Cal State officials are expecting a close vote on Proposition 153.
"We're at the point where one makes a decision: Do we give up, do we condemn or is there intermediate ground?" Leveille said. He said Oxnard, Camarillo and Ventura County officials have indicated their willingness to help pay for the costly improvements to roads, sewers and other infrastructure. But he said the time has come for written commitments.
Cal State entered negotiations with two owners of 320 acres of citrus groves and farmland west of Camarillo after the Board of Trustees selected the site in September. One owner, Sakioka Farms, is willing to sell. But the second owner, Mohseni Ranches, has so far refused to sell. Cal State will probably have to invoke eminent domain to acquire the land.
The decision over whether Cal State moves forward with the purchase and condemnation--an issue trustees will decide in July--is complicated by the state's deepening financial problems, Leveille said.
Regardless of the bond measure's fate in Tuesday's primary, legislators still have to grapple with a projected $11-billion state deficit. With Cal State dependent on the state for 94% of its budget, the expected cuts to the higher-education budget could be deep and devastating.
Cal State Chancellor Barry Munitz said the system now faces budget cuts that may range from 14% to 32%. This could cripple the system, closing classes, halting programs and triggering massive staff and faculty layoffs, he said.
Existing Cal State campuses are already crowded, Munitz said. The university system projects that the student population will swell by 160,000 people by the end of the century.
That leaves no spare cash to plan or develop the Ventura County campus if Proposition 153 is rejected by the voters, Munitz said. The measure contains $300 million for new construction and renovations for the Cal State system. Of that, $350,000 is earmarked to help plan the new Ventura County campus.
"If 153 fails and we get this level of operating cuts, we can't go ahead with Ventura," he said. "There is no money for planning, and we can't look at the enrollment coming because there would be no faculty to teach them."
To university officials, the ballot proposition carries far more significance than simply allocating money for construction and renovation, Munitz said. "It's more than a bond measure; it's a referendum on higher education."
In 1985, the Legislature set aside $7 million to buy land for a Cal State campus in Ventura County. The money was generated from a bill sponsored by state Sen. Gary K. Hart (D-Santa Barbara), who also represents portions of Ventura County.
"I will do all I can to protect the money already set aside for acquisition," Hart said. "Right now, our budget situation is so precarious that all special funds are being raided to try to balance the budget to find onetime money to get us through this very difficult time."
Leveille said that even if money to buy land is protected, it may be years before any more cash is available to begin building the campus.
"It's a very difficult balance," Leveille said. "Do you fund something that potentially has no future, or do you fund something where there are already students?"
If a condemnation were not involved, Cal State might be able to buy the land and bank it for 10, 20 or 30 years until the system returns to financial health, Leveille said.
But California courts have not supported public agencies that condemn land and hold it for long-term future use with no means to develop it in the foreseeable future, Leveille said.
Cal State officials have long recognized the need for a four-year public university in Ventura County. Even if they are forced to relinquish the land now, they suggest that they would try again in a decade or two.
"Right now we're faced with significant cutbacks, and it's hard to put on another hat and talk about expansion," Anthony M. Viti, chairman of the Board of Trustees. He reiterated that the board is committed to building a Ventura County campus if at all possible. "We are going to do everything we can to move this along."