by Phillip Manning ~ May 5th, 2014
On Friday, the Mat-Su Borough Assembly held a special meeting at the Willow Community Center to discuss the budget for the upcoming fiscal year. More than thirty area residents attended the meeting, but only a handful spoke. KTNA’s Phillip Manning was there, and has this report:
Most of the public testimony at Friday’s meeting came from Willow area residents requesting funding for area trails. After that, about half of the meeting consisted of comments from the Assembly Members themselves. Jim Sykes, who represents District 1, expressed concern about the borough relying increasingly on grants in order to fund expenses. He says that the portion of the budget paid for by borough taxes has decreased, while the amount funded by grants, mostly from the state, has increased from one-fifth of the budget to about one-third over the last decade.
“The point I’m trying to make about this is I believe this is heading us into an unsustainable budget process, because if you do go into this year’s budget, you’ll find something on the order of this year’s proposed capital budget being cut about $4 million, but in reality, it’s also proposing to spend about $13 million more than we take in.”
Assembly Member Sykes says he believes that, since grant funding is not always predictable, that it could lead to the borough using reserves to finish or maintain projects and services that were begun under grant funding. If those reserves run out, he says it would mean tough fiscal times for the Mat-Su.
“We either are going to reach a point where we do not have grant funding or we have spent our reserves, and we’re either going to be cutting projects and services or cutting personnel.”
Assembly Member Vern Halter, whose district includes the Upper Valley, said that much of the upswing in grant funding is for infrastructure projects that are outside of the ability of local service areas to fund.
“The grants…like the fire hall, Nancy Lake Fire Hall, which is $600,000 that was just approved by this legislature. That would be a grant-type situation. Four-mile, last year, that’s a grant situation, money coming in. It’s something that the local fire service area or the local road service area could never afford on it’s own, I guarantee you that. So, it’s something I kind of advocate.”
Assembly Member Halter acknowledged that many grants are dependent on the Alaska State Legislature, but that he believes the borough’s delegation has been largely successful in continuing to secure funds.
“I suppose that it could dry up. I’m hopeful that it doesn’t. Our group down in Juneau right now are very strong, and advocate for us, and listen to us. I’m pretty proud of them on that subject.”
Near the end of the meeting, Deputy Mayor Ronald Arvin introduced an idea for increasing funds to the Mat-Su Borough School District, which takes up more than three-quarters of the borough’s total spending. The district has requested a three-percent increase in funding in order to keep pace with rising costs. The plan would change how unspent school funds are redistributed at the end of a budget year. Currently, the school district keeps seventy-five percent of those funds, with twenty-five percent returning to the borough. The alternative Assembly Member Arvin proposed would call for no increase to the budget itself, but would allow the school district to keep all of the unspent funds from the previous fiscal year. After the meeting, Assembly Member Arvin said he believes that, for the coming year, that plan would put the district near the figure they are requesting.
“It’s about a wash. I think it results in about a $100,000 increase to the district. This is the education session; the Assembly is sensitive to that too. Paying our own fair share, we understand what that means. So, we’re trying to do the best we can with that.”
Assembly Member Arvin says the leftover funding is not predictable year-to-year, so it does not represent a permanent funding solution, but he says it would hit near the number the school district is requesting for 2015. He says his chief concern is that continual percentage-based budget increases “raise the floor” for future funding.
Official deliberations on the budget will take place this week, beginning on Monday. Currently, five special meetings are scheduled between now and May 14th for deliberation and possible adoption of the next borough budget.