Assembly approves city, schools budgets

Despite last-minute testimony, Juneau School District budget stays the same

After hashing out the fiscal year 2015 budget two weeks ago, the City and Borough of Juneau Assembly butted heads one last time on several items before approving the city and Juneau School District budgets Monday night.

 

Despite a lot of back-and-forth, the budgets remained relatively unchanged from what the group decided as the Assembly finance committee.

Six skaters, parents and coaches spoke at Monday’s meeting against changing the months of operation for the Treadwell Ice Arena. Skaters fear that plans to close the rink during the summer — when there is no ice — will affect ice time. After the testimony, the Assembly did not discuss changing its plan to close the facility for two months starting next year and turn most of the rink’s full-time positions into part-time jobs.

Before the group officially approved the budget, assemblywoman Kate Troll attempted to amend it in several ways. All of the amendments but one were voted down. The sole accepted amendment reduced a cut to funding for the local branch of the Alaska Small Business Development Center.

Troll also suggested putting $52,000 back in the budget for city employee parking passes in a downtown parking garage. These passes had been cut from the budget by the group as the finance committee. Losing the passes means the city’s downtown workers will have to pay about $600 per year to park in the garage.

“On first blush (the cut) sounded like a good thing, but in learning more about the consequences ... we were setting up different classes of employees,” Troll said.

While downtown workers who live downtown can walk to work, those living farther down Egan Drive and Glacier Highway will have to pay to be there, she said.

With recent cuts to city staff, “we’re asking our employees to step up and carry more of the load,” Troll said. “This was being seen as punitive.”

Assemblymen Randy Wanamaker, Jerry Nankervis and Jesse Kiehl argued against adding the sum back into the budget.

“We built those parking garages to provide parking for people coming downtown,” Nankervis said. “I’ll say this is something that we can’t afford to do at this time.”

Because of relatively small cost of the parking passes to the city, city manager Kim Kiefer was not required to get the expenditure approved by the Assembly.

“Because it was not authorized and discussed previously, I am not willing to restore it,” Wanamaker said.

Kiehl said he wasn’t willing to restore the funds for the passes because it seems trivial compared to the approximately 12 jobs lost through budget reductions.

“There are folks in our city that are looking at a pink slip — quite a few of them, in fact,” he said. “Some of them are friends of mine. So my priorities here just can’t stretch to parking passes.”

The Assembly ended up directing Kiefer to look for $52,000 within the budget to fund the passes.

The group also discussed property tax increases again, after voting two weeks ago to keep taxes flat and instead dip into the city’s general fund balance to balance the budget.

Kiehl argued that even with the originally proposed increase, Juneau’s property tax “would have remained one of the lowest ... in all of organized Alaska.”

“I do not smile when I pay my tax bill each year, but the simple fact remains that public services do require revenues,” he said. “Budgets that overspend from our savings are not a responsible way to take care of this community in the long run.”

Troll agreed, pointing out that the property tax rate came down in 2005 and has remained flat since then.

“That is the only place that has remained flat in our economy,” she said. “We have done our part on the cut side of the ledger but we have not been willing to look modestly on the revenue side of the ledger. I do think we are being a bit shortsighted.”

Nankervis and assemblyman Carlton Smith said at past meetings that raising the property tax would hurt Juneau businesses. Nankervis said at Monday’s meeting that the Assembly had already decided not to raise taxes.

“We hashed this all out last week,” he said.

Ultimately, the group stuck with its plan to put off raising property taxes, with Troll and Kiehl voting against.

The school district remained funded at the approximately $25 million initially proposed by the city manager and decided upon after much discussion by the finance committee. This is the same amount the Assembly funded the district last year, but well below the state-imposed funding cap for this year. The Assembly historically funds the district to the cap.

Before the vote, school advocates urged the Assembly to increase its funding of the district.

Juneau-Douglas High School tennis coach Amy Skilbred said the Juneau School District Board of Education almost made a significant cut to school activities because of the less-than-expected funding from the city. The board ultimately decided not to, but that money will have to come from somewhere, she said — “it is something they’ll have to be looking at next year.”

“I understand that it’s hard times,” she said. “I want to really support increasing school funding by the $390,000 that was approved (by the school board) for activities.”

When it came time to vote on the schools budget, Kiehl made an amendment to add back $392,500, enough to maintain 3.5 full-time teaching positions. This move would have saved the district from increasing class size at the elementary school level, “where student learning is most sensitive to class size,” he said. As the budget stands now, the district will have to lay off the equivalent of about 11 full-time teachers.

“It takes dollars to pay teachers,” Kiehl said. “It pains me that for the first time since I’ve lived in this community ... we won’t be funding to the cap.”

Troll said she’d rather put more money into education than anywhere else.

“If there is one place we should be able to fund a little bit more, it’s for education,” she said. “We really aren’t addressing that through this budget ordinance.”

Nankervis said the school board can decide what to do with the funding it receives from the city — if it wants to forgo something else to keep class sizes flat, it can. The Assembly can fund the schools but “where they decide to put the money is their decision,” he said.

Although the FY 2015 budget cycle has come to an end, the FY 2016 cycle is fast approaching, as the Assembly works ahead to fix a $9 million shortfall projected for that year. Meetings on the 2016 budget will likely start in July, city finance director Bob Bartholomew said.

Assemblyman Loren Jones said during Monday’s meeting that the Assembly needs to adopt a more holistic view of what it means to balance the budget, including deciding what is and what is not an essential city function.

“What do we mean by the term ‘right-sizing’?” he said. “What do we mean by ‘essential services’? What do we mean by the terms we keep throwing out?”

• Contact reporter Katie Moritz at 523-2294 or at katherine.moritz@juneauempire.com.

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