City braces against fiscal train wreck

Posted: Thursday, January 13, 2000

If the Juneau Assembly doesn't give the city manager's office some direction in carving out a very lean city budget right now, the train wreck may happen later rather than sooner, but it will happen.

So said City Manager Dave Palmer to the assembly Finance Committee, meeting Wednesday night to consider carving out what it can't afford because of a looming $3.85 million deficit for fiscal year 2001 and a $4.3 million hole for the next year.

``In some cases, this means people's jobs,'' Palmer said. ``You can't cut the budget and not lose people.''

The manager offered the committee possibilities for cuts in personnel and services, including a clerical position and an intern in the law department, seasonal inspectors in engineering, two police officers, three firefighters, a contract for plowing snow in Douglas, a $3 fare for a formerly free Capital Transit Caravan service ride, and fewer city planners.

``Appeals will slow down, we won't be doing same-day inspections in the field, plows won't go by as often, and the library won't be open as many days,'' Palmer said.

Mayor Dennis Egan offered no relief from the gloom and doom. ``The governor has no cuts in his budget, but legislators want to cut (the remaining municipal revenue sharing) now,'' he said. ``It could get a lot worse than it is tonight.''

What ``it'' was Wednesday night was the manager's plan to institute an 8 percent, across-the-board budget cut for all city departments, including - for the first time - the school district's city funding.

To add fuel to the fire, tax increases that might offset revenue shortfalls are not part of the picture, said Finance Committee Chairman Dwight Perkins.

``And with the flattening out of (real estate) assessments in recent years, along with not meeting growth projections with sales tax collections, it's not a pretty picture,'' he said.

Of the $3.8 million deficit projected, $2 million comes from the state's cuts in municipal revenue sharing, Perkins said. ``If that went away, half our problem would go away with it.''

Airport Board Chairman Mike Barton contributed to the heat of the discussion with a plan to change the airport's Federal Aviation Administration index rating, one that would not require the city fire department's current airport response level. The change would cut airport contributions to city coffers by $200,000, the equivalent of three firefighter positions.

``The problem with that is the board would not be returning the money to the people paying it out - the tenants,'' Perkins said. ``The board wants to keep the money for capital improvement projects. And this would mean major cuts to the fire department. I don't think it's going to happen.''

Assembly member and airport liaison Jim Powell supported the board's proposal. ``We need to trust this board,'' he said. ``But we do need to trust them with the numbers in front of us.''

Powell commiserated with the airport's budgetary position, he said. ``The airport is experiencing the train wreck, but that's part of this train wreck.''

Perkins instructed the airport board to send him minutes of its deliberations on the index change; told the school board president to come back with a scenario that depicts the effects of both a 5 percent and an 8 percent across-the-board cut; and instructed Palmer to continue with his plan to present the assembly with his office's projected cuts by the end of January.

``I don't like the verbiage, `train wreck,' Perkins said. ``We ARE going to have to show the community taxpayers that we're making some adjustments inside. But we do have $5 million in the rainy-day account. And there are some temporary sales tax renewals coming up.''

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