To what would you liken the relationship between the Mat-Su Borough and its cities? Kingdom-vassal? Parent-child? Husband-wife or husband-wife divorced? Stepchildren? Business partners?
Let’s set that question aside and look at some of the dynamics that differentiate the borough from our three cities.
The complexity of our relationships struck me recently when our Mat-Su Borough Assembly and all three city councils met together. We met in a borough-owned building (used by the Mat-Su school administration, which serves elementary and high school education of the entire borough, both in and outside the cities). The building was located inside the city of Palmer and the joint meeting was chaired by Wasilla Mayor Verne Rupright.
The primary tone of the meeting was cities laying out their requests of the borough. Those requests included library funding, transportation infrastructure, sewer/septage coordination, SART program, vehicle license fees, animal control, refuse, Youth Court, parks, tribal powers and staff assistance for planning in Houston.
Before getting into specifics, let me digress to our various municipal origins and the powers that came with that law.
The borough was formed by the Mandatory Borough Act of 1964. We had a choice whether to be a first- or second-class borough. The voters selected second-class. The borough was endowed with specific powers on the condition that it would only have powers vested by the state or the voters. Those powers were pretty limited.
Some of those powers were areawide (both in and outside the cities), like property taxation and education. Some of those powers were non-areawide, like libraries and animal control. All of those powers were intended to provide both the authority to provide services and to generate revenue to pay for them.
Your tax bill reflects an areawide component and a non-areawide component, a fire service area mill levy, and a road service area mill (if you live in such service areas). We apply an excise tax on tobacco and a bed tax on tourists, too.
Our cities reflect three city variations allowed by the state. Palmer is “home rule.” Wasilla is first-class, and Houston is second-class. All of the cities elected at some time in history to become cities and were granted that status by the state.
All were vested with all the powers not prohibited by law. They can exercise other powers that we had to obtain from the voters, like libraries and parks and recreation.
The cities can tax property. The borough is compelled to collect and distribute that tax.
Palmer and Houston residents see three mills on top of the borough’s areawide tax, which we collect and return to those cities. Wasilla does not levy a property tax. The cities can (and do) tax sales.
Another tax that is collaborative is the licensing tax. The state collects that tax, pays the borough, and the borough distributes it by a formula in our code that includes cities, based on population, areawide, non-areawide, all service areas and the remainder to a dust mitigation program.
Some powers are shared. The borough obtained planning and platting powers at inception. The planning power was passed on to the cities, except in instances like the Borough Power Ordinance, where the city planning power was removed.
The platting power stays with the borough because the borough did not confer that to the cities. The borough exercises library powers (granted by the voters) outside the cities. The cities elected to use their library powers.
The borough exercises animal control non-areawide, granted by state law. Each of the cities, rather than relinquish animal control power, contract with the borough for either animal control services or use of the animal control facilities.
Let’s go back to the dynamics around our joint meeting with the cities. The cities and, more particularly, the city libraries, want direct borough support. They have studiously documented that a large percentage of their users are living outside the city limits.
Because these libraries are in their respective cities and under city authority we cannot appropriate non-areawide tax monies directly to city libraries. In the past, this has been done with areawide funds granted to the cities in block grants to use as they wish.
The argument against this subsidy is that the cities collect more than their share of sales taxes from residents who live outside the cities. Their libraries are certainly not stranded, as would be the case with the libraries in our communities outside the cities.
The issues of Youth Court and SART (Sexual Assault Response Team) illustrate a request for funds from a city for a power that the borough does not own or bequeath. The cities all have police powers, but the borough does not. We could distribute the tobacco excise tax and bed tax money to the cities, but conversely they could and, more appropriately, should levy that themselves.
I guess the long and short of my rambling is that the state’s intent of granting municipal powers — both borough and cities — is to allow each to be self-sustaining. We should try to keep it that way as much as possible. It will be my effort to work together cooperatively with the cities.
I’m sure I have made the point that our relationship is complex. So, back to the question: to what do you liken the borough municipalities?
We have separate but overlapping boundaries, services and unique powers. We all have the same parentage — state law.
I guess my conclusion is that we are individually gifted and endowed children that need to learn to play together in the sandbox. May we do that with a measure of the same grace the Creator of this paradise has bestowed on us all.
The borough’s public affairs director, Patty Sullivan, has posted the numbers behind the different tax revenues and their allocation for fiscal year 2012 on the borough web page, matsugov.us, under the link for “Press Releases.”
Larry DeVilbiss has been borough mayor since January 2011.