Note: This story comes to us through a content sharing agreement between KTNA and Wick Communications. Wick owns the Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman, Anchorage Press, and Talkeetna Press, and additional local papers in Southcentral Alaska.
by: Matt Hickman – Frontiersman.com
WASILLA — Specifically described as ‘not a debate,’ Tuesday’s Greater Wasilla Area Chamber of Commerce meeting pitted Mat-Su Borough Superintendent Dr. Monica Goyette and Wasilla Mayor Bert Cottle on opposite sides of a forum on a proposed borough-wide sales tax that could be decided on by voters as early as October.
Between them was Mat-Su Borough Manager John Moosey, who explained that borough rules required that he remain neutral.
“I am here to keep Bert and Monica separated,” Moosey joked. “And to verify the accuracy of statements.”
The original draft of the proposal was for a 3 percent sales tax to be approved for the October ballot at the next Mat-Su Borough meeting on Aug. 1, though Goyette said that at Wednesday night’s borough school board meeting, the administration will put forth a proposal to reduce that amount to 2 percent; this despite a poll she cited that claimed 53 percent of Alaskans would support a tax to help reduce class sizes.
Class sizes, Goyette said, are the biggest concern for the district heading into a 2017-18 budget that sees the district running at an $11 million deficit, translating into a loss of approximately $700 per pupil in funding.
“Just like the state, we’re running out of revenue,” she said. “In the past we’ve been able to use our savings to make it up, but we’re running out of reserve and we’re dealing with per pupil costs that keep going up.”
Cottle objected to the proposal on a number of grounds, including the logistics of applying and collecting taxes in cities that have differing regulations regarding sales taxes. Palmer and the Borough, he pointed out, have laws capping taxation at $1,000, while Wasilla and Houston cap at $500.
Cottle also had a philisophical objection to funding education with a sales tax after property owners are already fitting the bill with their property taxes, and besides, he said, the state constitution declares that funds cannot be deliniated for any particular cause; that everything must go into the general fund, which may spend the revenue on schools this year, but there’s nothing to stop future borough assemblies from spending it on anything else they desire.
Moosey agreed that state law prohibits direct earmarking of funds, but said the borough has a history of honoring these types of commitments.
“The borough attorney drafted the ordinance, and it is correct that you can’t deliniate funding. It will go to the general fund,” Moosey said. “They have been consistent in my seven years… There is no way to dedicate funds, but the past history of this assembly and past assemblies going back 20 years or more, indicates that they would honor that intention.”
Goyette said the Mat-Su currently has the highest student-per-teacher ratio in the state at an average of 32 to 1 at the high school level — a ratio bound to inflate even more.
“We will literally have students that won’t have a desk and a chair in every classroom,” Goyette said. “We want you to know that businesses in the Valley are our families, too. We don’t want to become an economic problem.”
Cottle said the rush to get the measure on the October ballot is another reason to hold off on any decision, especially since the assembly hasn’t had a meeting in nearly a month.
“We (the city of Wasilla) support the funding of education, but we passed an ordinance last night opposing the way Ordinance 17-0938 in written,” Cottle said, adding that putting the onus on the voters doesn’t make it any wiser. “Good or bad, you can’t take it back. I’d like to see it postponed and looked at down the road when the three cities and the borough can get together. There’s some wrinkles in this road that need to be smoothed out.”