There isn't a city, county or borough in the country that doesn't struggle trying to explain to its public how the government spends their tax dollars. Thanks to the continuous requests from the public engaged in the process, you know doing your heavy lifting, this year in the Mat Su Borough residents might have a little less to wonder about. The borough manager cracked the whip, and instead of just linking a big 500 plus page budget document that few read and nobody understands, he posted a bevy of documents on the main borough webpage. This will allow everyone a substantially better look at how the pie is divided. Perhaps most interesting, are some of the questions from assembly members who bothered to ask and the answers they received. Standard practice had been for the manager to respond to just the inquiring mind or the answer would be stuffed in the all-important red folder at the table. So a tip of the hat to borough manager Moosey.
For a couple of years now public testimony on the budget has been held in Wasilla at the Central Fire station. The rationale is that the location is more in the center of the borough and would encourage more people to turn out. Observation in this magical thinking doesn't really offer up any better results in attendance than the stuffy basement of the borough building in Palmer. However, this year the clerk was allowed to get a real sound system with a technician that was way better than the "barbie microphones" they have struggled to adapt for use in the past.
Hey, It’s about the Kids!
In two nights of testimony the message was nearly the same in 2011 with a bit less turnout from educators and supporters. They seemed to be resigned to the fact that after flat funding from the borough last year, this years proposed budget at this point already includes the minimum 3% the district has asked for and might be as good as it gets. Those that did testify in support of education funding seemed to have a better grasp on the specifics and spoke less in generalities. That speaks well of the good start the school district has done in their efforts to dare we say enlighten everyone about the education piece of the borough budget pie and correct some misstatements from the past and present. In addition, there was a bit of a full court press in Juneau this year that paid off and we can’t help but note that it is an election year. Go figure, right. It is a disappointment that the powers of be continue to stick their proverbial heads in the sand about a consistent pattern of forward funding for education. This kabuki dance the state, borough and district are all forced to do when it comes to financing is costly to taxpayers on so many levels. There should be a permanent prisoner exchange to do away with holding kid's education hostage and hold some elected officials accountable in this area. End of story. At least for now!
Dangerous Curves Ahead
Numerous individuals testified in budget hearings about the need to increase pay and capacity for emergency services that in a borough of our size is wildly expensive. Luckily few of us will ride in an ambulance in our lifetime but by golly everyone wants one if they find the need. And they better be there quicker than the taxi. Particularly outside the core, drivers and crew of EMS respond to parts of our borough that are in worse shape often than the victims they are trying to rescue. Just where accidents and emergencies occur in the 2500 square mile borough an ambulance in many cases isn't the vehicle that can get to victims. Responders often times need a four-wheeler, snow-machine, boat, hovercraft, airplane, helicopter or some other mode of transportation. Cha-Ching, Cha-Ching is the cost of emergency and rescue. Then there are fire stations that need to be built or expanded now because the growing density of population calls for it. Add to the mix the increasing need because Mat Su has become and will continue to be the choice of people in Anchorage and other areas to come and recreate.You get the picture. Some employment data suggests that Mat Su emergency responders are woefully below normal pay scale of other areas and with a huge turnover rate as the borough trains them up and they go where they can make a livable wage. Unlikely that anyone in the assembly corral, especially during an election year, will suggest pinching pennies on public safety even though they might whine about it for show.
Shuffling the Cards for Social Services
Remember the sting of the ceremonial mayor’s veto pen that attempted to rob the people in the valley providing badly needed human services of much needed matching grant monies? To review, last year a call to action turned folks out and the past assembly was able to overturn the veto. This year the social service sector took a more pro-active stance. They were present to testify and remind the ceremonial mayor and members of the assembly that although they respect conservative values they need the support of matching grant funding so they can continue their work. These organizations provide respite and assistance to Alzheimer's patients, those in substance abuse treatment, and oversee many other vitally needed programs. The Mat Su Health Foundation spreads a huge amount of money around the valley and brought to everyone's attention that income levels and educational levels are the top two drivers of any community and that if we improve the health of those with the poorest health it only helps business and development. This is a strong message that should resonate with assembly members always in a hurry to fall on their sword for anything harkening itself as business.
Speaking of business, the final night of testimony brought out the big guns for the tourism business from Princess Cruises and promoters of the of the newest shiny tourism project, the South Denali Visitors Center. This project has been on the plate for some 40 years and they were there to garner some support financial or otherwise to provide 3-phase power from Sunshine (mile 101) to mile 135 of the Parks Hwy. Billed as a cooperative effort between the state and Princess its hard to assess, but in three minutes of testimony other than the basis of the request it does beg the question if the ceremonial mayor who still sits on the MEA board will get the recuse hook if it comes up in deliberations.
Support Your Local Library
No budget public hearing is complete without testimony from lovers of our libraries and solicitation of support. Every year you can almost bet that there will be an arm wrestling match at the assembly table on how much financial support libraries get. There are several dynamics in play. Cities in the borough struggle to serve an influx of people that don't live within their boundaries by trying to scrape up enough funding to continue the service and provide for the demand on facilities. Libraries in more rural areas provide much more to communities than shelves of bound books. They are, in most instances the only places residents of the area have to gather for public meetings, get computer access, or a tiny bit of socialization of others. Let's not forget they provide some jobs, something few and far between in rural areas. One of the biggest factors in the library-funding puzzle is the unspoken fact that those that use the libraries are often not considered a huge voting block like say charter school parents. Sometimes an easy pawn in the game to sacrifice. Let's hope not.
Finally this year, a cadre of borough employees donned in green tee shirts to show their solidarity during the budget process with some even brave enough to testify. Since the last election the increased noise of chest pounding about the evils of too many departments and employees in government along with how the "private sector" can do it better and cheaper spewed endlessly from a majority of the assembly armed with a spear to destroy anything that looks like regulation or something to enforce as at times become deafening.. Understandably there is concern. Last year data showed the borough employed 1 person for every 332 people whereas Anchorage has 1 for every 107. This is significant in many ways. The Municipality of Anchorage spreads over an area of a mostly developed 1,961 square mile area verses our own borough of 2,500 rugged miles of rapidly growing, and an intensely needy population expanse. A leading state economist has pointed out in a presentation to this assembly that by 2020 Anchorage is only forecasted to grow 15% where Mat-Su grew faster than any other area of the state and will should look forward to 44% growth. A growing borough needs people to operate it efficiently and effectively. Manager Moosey, completing his first year of service, which some would described as a baptismal by fire, deserves to have the people to do the work of the people. It would be a great time to stop the costly trend of using 1,000 hour employees and temporary department heads to supplement your workforce and recognize that a growing borough needs workers. The people that do the work deserve the support, tools and vote of confidence and respect to do their jobs. If the borough doesn't provide that they will join the ranks of the other road warriors and take their talents and our investment in training with them to Anchorage to benefit. Explain that to your local restaurant owners, coffee houses, gas stations and grocery stores. You know businesses. Let's not forget the voters of the borough approved a huge school bond last year and the ink will soon be dry on the approval of a sizable road bond. Those projects will languish and become more costly if there is not the workforce to complete them. It's just common sense to protect the money the taxpayers have committed by getting the projects done in a timely manner. It takes people pure and simple.
Port of Expensive Possibilities
This assembly, past assemblies and probably future assemblies are still rolling the dice on the port paying off in spades. The flow of investment of federal, state and borough tax dollars are mind-boggling. It's always been a “build it and they will come” project. The borough manager and staff have been tasked with creating a virtual city at the end of the road that is seen by many as the perfect place for commerce. With lack of infrastructure it makes that task even more challenging. It’s been a marketing effort like no other in the borough and recently ramped up with funding for a new economic director with high expectations. Certain assembly members have made it a goal of seemingly micro-managing borough staff in creating government services that pay the cost of the service and adding meaningful income to the borough in port permits, fees and leases. Few residents in the borough have even been to the Point McKenzie port area to see what is currently developed or the opportunities that they are told are possible. Assembly members Woods and Arvin served on previous port commissions and Assembly member Salmon a former borough mayor himself and former board member of KABATA (with the port being a big part of his assembly district) makes a trio of big believers in continuing the flow of funds to the port. No cuts expected here.
Pinch a Penny, Squeeze a Dollar
The chair of the Planning Commission a businessman himself, testified that the assembly spends an enormous amount of time chasing down ways to squeeze a dollar out of a budget and not enough time creating the environment in the valley to create new revenue. Got that right! He and many others served on a group of stakeholders that provided the feedback for the Mat-Su Strategic Economic Development Plan adopted in 2010 with the game plan for a vibrant, successful, quality borough in which to live. That plan has been casually tossed to the side. Apparently this assembly wants to concentrate on the ruse of the "opening the borough up for business" that has become the new tool to position the right profiteers. The self-proclaimed conservative assembly majority is tireless in its pursuit of a freedom that doesn’t necessarily benefit business. The payoff for assembly members running for re-election this year is sure to be a short term personal gain (including power and reputation) rather than borough benefit.
How About a Spot of Tea & a Crumpet or Two?
This ceremonial mayor and majority of the assembly are without a doubt the most politically motivated pack ever seated at the table. Assembly member Colligan, undaunted by the appearance of a possible conflict, continues to serve as vice chairman of the state republican party despite his statement of stepping down if he is elected to the assembly. The ceremonial mayor and three assembly members are listed as being elected by the efforts of a tea party group based in Wasilla who is out for the heads of anyone that doesn't dance to their tune of shrinking government with their bullying efforts. Governing is messy business. This element makes it not only messy, but also divisive and motivated by the success of political futures and not the future of residents and future generations. Governing shouldn't be about building empires, voter bases or rewarding supporters but you would be blind not to see the pieces of all of those elements busy at work with this group.
Ahem, Pay Attention! It’s All About the $$$
Make no mistake. The budget flies under the radar for most of us. But hey it is a big deal. It’s the mechanism for the entire direction our borough goes and what it costs us now and in the future. What happens next week in a string of special meetings dedicated to process is a big deal. The ceremonial mayor has already warned he wanted plenty of time before the deadline of passage to apply his much coveted veto pen like that's an effective way of governing. Expect to see the usual amount of arm waving about keeping the mill rate down because we are taxing people out of their homes which by the way doesn't happen until they haven't paid those taxes for 10 YEARS! Expect to hear about certain things not being the role of government. Expect to hear we need to cut our way to success with a flat or reduced mill rate. This is where we wish some time would be spent in Juneau insisting the state pay up for one big unfunded mandate. The assembly could reduce the areawide mill rate by .88 mills from the proposed level of 10.381 mills to 9.501 mills if the state got on board paying what is owed the borough. Additionally, mill rates in the nonareawide fund and the service areas could be reduced.
If wishes were horses, we would all ride.
If there is an area of government services that are important to you, times a wasting to share those thoughts with the assembly via email or phone. Budget deliberations start Monday and no doubt there will be plenty to report here after the gavel falls, but it will be too late to weigh in then and those paying attention might be busy calling on the hazmat team to clean up the spill.