Thanks for asking...There was a bit of recovering required from bearing witness to the good, bad and the really ugly yearly borough budget process and trying to process it before making it your nightmare. A process your assembly and keeper of the borough checkbook has placed in the crying towel file after some messy deliberations, a nudge of ceremonial mayor vetoes and what might be a record level of bloviating.
One thing is clear. This year’s budget is way less about money and way more about moving forward a radical rightwing conservative dogma. Touted as just the medicine the borough needs for a wildly successful economic future. Except for the part that… it isn't.
The Great Bloviators Have Spoken – dare to take note and action
If you want the official borough statement that dutifully comes from the borough public affairs office you can read it on the borough website. Like every press release there are parts that they want you to know and the parts you just SHOULD know that the press release doesn’t release. Our job is to fill in some of the parts the official statement leaves out. The part they don't tell you and you don't know. Unless you gave up several of your evenings to sit in borough chambers to watch the high stakes poker game funded in large part by your property tax dollars that this assembly was elected to be stewards of. This is where you start weeping.
The press release lauding the final budget states, "The budget was reconsidered by Deputy Mayor Ron Arvin as he wanted to lower the mill rate". Noble move if Mr. Arvin had a deep concern only about property owners pocketbooks. But like much with the radical members of this assembly there is more to it. In this case it is this little rarely understood thing called the "revenue cap". Without going into a long history lesson here, the assembly in 2005 responded and headed off a citizen initiative to invoke a tax cap. Instead they passed an ordinance restricting the growth of borough government by linking it to a "revenue cap". By setting a revenue cap the former assembly clearly recognized the demand that was certain to come with increases of population and insistence for future services as well as the importance of not hamstringing future assemblies to a political blood battle. This played out last year when the previous assembly wanted to show restraint with budget cuts with a little political favor was garnered for themselves. They then applied several million dollars from the state in community revenue sharing dollars but added it to the budget as a rebate to property taxpayers after the mill rate was set. Apparently they didn’t want to disturb the revenue cap while at the same time fooling the taxpayer into believing they got a discount. This year along comes Mr. Arvin with his own plan to hobble the government he loves to hate and to the delight of the conservative patriots enlists his majority power broker assembly brethren to add the big share of current state community revenue sharing funds into the final budget and slams the revenue cap in the door with it. Confused yet? That's what Mr. Arvin and his supporters are hoping for. He doesn’t get it that the state might not feel so generous next year similar to a year in recent memory where the state gave no revenues to communities to assist in their development. Nope. What difference will it make in property tax bills next year that the rebate is set within the mill rate and not as a rebate after the rate is set? Nothing. Not a penny this year. The difference will come in coming years as future assemblies struggle to provide for the certain demand for services and now are faced with a tax cap instead of a revenue cap.
It’s a Big Deal
Thanks go to a couple of power hungry, anti-government, starve the beast assembly members for this well orchestrated move. Mr. Arvin even acknowledged that most likely a future assembly will need to have the political courage to make any changes to the tax cap that he has created. It's a big deal and do you know why no one is making a big deal about it? Because like we said it’s not about the money, it’s about the doctrine of political personal poison moving through our borough government that will cost us all money in the end. Count on some serious reflection next budget season when another flat budget will be looming and no election hanging over the heads of the members of the assembly who need to serve up just a tiny piece of the pie to satisfy some tastes for things like education, infrastructure repair, tourism, health and human services matching grant monies and even routine and expected services from local government. Remember, if you starve the beast your almost certain of a lousy service level which gives the koolaid drinking Cato Institute lovers of free markets just what they want, a crappy governing body. And it’s all fun and games until the Cato lovers need government to come to their rescue.
While we're on the topic of toxic doctrines let’s look at the ceremonial mayor's failed veto of the borough's membership to the Alaska Municipal League that again had nothing to do with the money. For those that haven't heard of AML, it is a voluntary, nonprofit, nonpartisan, statewide organization of 140 cities, boroughs, and unified municipalities, representing over 98 percent of Alaska's municipalities. They support oil and gas development, supports adequate funding for residential and small businesses, opposes unfunded state and federal mandates, supports revenue sharing from the state, provides training, networking opportunities and joint services to strengthen local governments so they have a unified voice. What could be wrong with being part of that group right? Well according to Mr. Arvin the lone assembly vote supporting the mayors failed veto, AML is just a "liberal, socialist organization". Once again, ideology not money.
One Man Bands Lookin for a Road Show
It wouldn't be surprising if a resolution comes forward suggesting a renaming of "Hatcher Pass "to "Colver Pass". Fresh from his success in gutting the subdivision code, Assemblyman Colver successfully created another surveyor stimulus entity by nabbing some fat funding for surveying for future residential development in the still evolving MSB Hatcher Pass Recreation Venue even though the Development and Asset management plan is still out for public comment and far from approved. Waiting for the end of a public process has never been a strong suit for Mr Colver who is just itchin to get a truckload of levels and lasers up there post haste and the fact that he himself is a surveyor has nothing to do with it. Wink, Wink. This one is about the money and pockets waiting to be filled.
Then there is that pesky emergency dispatch study. Normally the suggestion of a study or plan of any sort sends a shudder through the assembly chambers. But apparently this doesn't apply if it’s the pet project of Assemblyman Colligan who has made it no secret his intention is to eliminate the Palmer Dispatch Center and build a consolidated dispatch empire in his own district of Wasilla. Certain that $300,000 of borough taxpayer money will give him the report that substantiates his vision to mirror cities like Portland and San Diego apparently because we have so much in common with those areas he wasn't in the mood to suffer fools on the subject. How he plans to convince the state who would be part of the consolidation to buy in to this vision isn't clear, but his impatience being questioned on the subject is. He had even less tolerance for questions about the $50,000 for yet another EMS performance and management study even though the pages have yet to be really turned on the $35,000 report commissioned in 2008. Those findings were ignored and referred to as "superficial", but Mr. Colligan who normally can be counted on to turn crimson red at the suggestion of taxpayer money being spent for any planning is now the reining godfather of about the only plan being considered at the borough. So there’s your memo borough tax payers. Plans are the order of the day if they are ordered up by the right assemblyman.
Representing Palmer, Assemblyman Woods' lone amendment for nearly $300,000 was for the port and preventative repair of the little used dock. It makes us wonder if he knows he is no longer a member of the port commission but representing the people of Palmer on the assembly. In all fairness to Woods he clearly wasn't enthralled with the direction this budget went and the extremists guiding it that only a few months ago he was looking forward to serving with. We feel your pain Mr. Woods.
More Ferry Dust?
No budget would be complete without a dust up on the now borough owned ferry. Expect the dried docked darling to become the excuse for everything that ails the borough and the repeated finger pointing to continue. This topic got loud enough to poke the sleeping bear. Assemblyman Salmon makes no excuses being the borough mayor during the time the borough decided to accept federal money to build a ferry. In no uncertain terms he was quick this time to remind Mr. Arvin, the main finger pointer, that he himself was indeed a member of the port commission that voted along with everyone else to move the ferry project forward. Salmon rightfully added that he was tiring of this never ending blame game. He stated that according to his calculations several assemblies and 3 other mayors had an opportunity to kill the project in the last 15 years as it perked along and didn't. He added that it might be time to change the conversation about the endless costs to the borough and concentrate on what the ferry can bring in revenue if it is put in use for which it was built. Not discussed but certainly a huge factor in the continuous ferry bashing is the fact that Mr. Arvin has led the charge for the borough to support the KABATA bridge project. The bridge is much more to his liking although public polls don't agree. The magical financing supporters of the bridge have brought to the table issues that have raised the ire of the Senate. Mr. Arvin has a long record from his tenure on the port commission of going down the rabbit hole voting along with everyone else in approving the construction of the ferry and accepting the big checks from the federal government to build what was to be the first step in connecting the borough to Anchorage to lead to the bridge of the future. But that was then and this is now. Like it or not the people of the borough are the new proud parents of a floating prototype ferry that few have seen and most would like to forget. Time for some big boy panties some might say.
Time to Buck Up or Not
Armed with the opinion of a new economic director with no evidence of how the level the borough was collecting its business inventory tax, or how it was hindering development and deferring new business, the assembly successfully jacked up the minimum business inventory tax the borough will be able to collect in the coming year. They are again betting on the borough without this supposed hideous tax will become a warehouse mecca that dovetails with the new rail spur. The rail spur that isn't built yet but partially funded. So instead of collecting from the 68 businesses that the borough now collects inventory tax for at $250,000 it will only be able to tap into 20 at $1M in inventory. Guess who will get to shoulder the loss? That's right the property tax payers or the other 98% this group professes to protect. Assembly member Colligan pointed this out several times then voted for it. Huh?
What we have is a radical right leaning majority of the assembly holding the people of the borough hostage for their friends in Big Business who they are hoping and betting the farm on coming and setting up business in the valley. You know, those same assembly members who endlessly remind us to trust in the huge never ending investment in the port and any other mega project that is their flavor of the day. Hopefully the post office will be delivering your thank you note from Walmart, Fred Meyer's, Safeway, Target etc thanking you for helping their bottom line. Or maybe contributing just a little more to their CEO pay who combined in just these big four is in excess of $60M. Now that part is about the money.
And lastly some fun…there were some sound bites that just cannot be left unshared;
"I don't see anywhere on our strategic plan that driveway permits are a priority around here” Assembly member Colver
Really Mr. Colver? Funny we don't see where the strategic plan suggests months of time and mountains of expense to gut the subdivision code and roll back to one pulled out of the 80's either. Just sayin...
"This is not a theater-serious business going on here." Assembly member Arvin
We saw the curl of Mr. Arvin's lip when he spat this out. We all get the part that he doesn't like to be challenged by public testimony especially by a former assembly member that is following his actions. Is it us or is Mr. Arvin particularly aggressively angry these days?
And we saved the best for last from Assembly member Colligan referring to the actions of past assemblies and the ferry once again…
“If it was a business decision I’d be lawyering up and setting shit on fire on this”
THE BOTTOM LINE
The budget is probably the single biggest piece of legislation that our assembly and ceremonial mayor take up every year. It guides the tone of development, the ability to sustain what services we already have, protects and builds on the borough’s ability to borrow money not to mention deal with unforeseen emergencies and uncharted growth. But the majority seated at the current assembly table has the checkbook and the crystal ball. Unfortunately for us all it’s now in a box wrapped in their own radical ideology and desperation for re-election without a bow. That is the real toxic mix.
We need to insist on a more deliberate approach to public spending and public money and not one that furthers personal ideology about how much certain members hate government with one hand, while rewarding “Big Government”, using borough savings for pet projects, or rewarding voter blocks of favored friends and constituents with the other. Let’s start by electing an assembly that relies on creating actual value for borough taxpayers and has the community’s best interest in mind.
By the way if you missed this column by Charlie Hayes in the Frontiersman you need to read it. It sums up what we have described here way better than we can from a valued valley treasure.