PALMER — The Mat-Su Borough Assembly tackled more than just taxes at their first meeting of the fiscal year on Tuesday. The Assembly heard testimony from a new timber project possibly coming to the Valley, gave Mayor Halter a raise and got an update from both sides of the aisle in Juneau.
Mat-Su Borough School District Superintendent Dr. Monica Goyette gave her update on the school district preparing to open its doors for th 2019-2020 school year. Goyette said that MSBSD has a projected enrollment of over 19,000 students. Goyette discussed the budget woes that every government body suffered as the result of uncertainty in Juneau. The MSBSD did not factor the $30 million in one-time monies into their budget, and were able to offer 139 contracts to the 140 eligible rehires from last school year. Throughout all the summer budget uncertainty and 170 non retention notices handed out, only one eligible rehire was not retained.
“We are really pleased,” said Goyette. “Nothing more important than a high quality teacher in front of kids so we are just thrilled we were able to retain them.”
As the Assembly prepared to hear public testimony on the proposed sales tax, former Senator Bill Stoltze and current Senator Mike Shower were in the crowd to watch the reaction. The Assembly’s lobbyist John Harris gave an update on how House Bill 2001 and Senate Bill 2002 were progressing in Juneau after the end of the second special session. Harris said that he expected Governor Dunleavy to sign the capital budget in the Senate Bill, which he did later his week. Much of the money in the Senate bill has matching federal funds attached to it, some of which will be directed to road projects in the Valley.
“The Governor has indicated he may not be as heavy-handed with the budget axe as he was initially,” said Harris.
Harris would not make a prediction as to how much of the School Bond Debt Reimbursement would be added back into the budget, but said that deals are being made in Juneau. Assembly member Ted Leonard asked about the timeline of House Bill 2001.
“I think that most people would want to make sure that the dividend is out there,” Harris answered. “It includes a number of other things that are there. I don’t think the legislature would hold it up on purpose.”
Director of the Governor’s Mat-Su Office, Todd Smoldon said that Harris did a good job with his recap, but added another perspective.
“I would agree with Mr. Harris that there has been some indication that there will be some things that might survive the governor’s veto pen as he looks at this operating budget,” Smoldon said. “Some of those are important to the Mat Su Valley, but there isn’t any real indication that the governor won’t just veto pretty much everything that was added back in.”
Smoldon spoke against the idea of a $1,600 Permanent Fund Dividend in the Legislature’s Capital Budget and commended the Youth Summit event held at the Glenn Massay Theater sponsored by the Mat-Su Opioid Taskforce. Smoldon also commended Mayor Halter on leading the way in budget deliberations following the release of Dunleavy’s budget on Feb. 13.
Borough Manager John Moosey asked for direction from the Assembly on two items. Moosey asked that the Assembly approve $30,000 from the Planning Department for fish passage in Big Lake. The money will come out of the planning department’s existing budget. Don Dyer gave a presentation on a possible timber export business out of Port Mackenzie. The Assembly had asked for more information in July, and Dyer delivered on Tuesday. Dyer says that JA International from South Korea is a leading timber products company, and that Dyer is negotiating a deal that would sell timber to South Korea and allow for a pellet processing plant to be constructed in the Mat-Su Valley. Dyer said that within 11 years, the increase of middle class spending globally will be $29 trillion dollars. Much of the growth of the middle class will be happening in Asia, where Dyer hopes they can sell timber that will be exported out of Port Mackenzie.
“They need what we have really bad and really fast,” said Dyer. “The business model is supply renewable energy long term — that’s it. Alaska has a massive amount of biomass.”
Ordinance 19-091 passed without opposition, raising the Mayor’s salary. Halter has donated much of his salary as Borough Mayor to the Willow Library and said he is not ‘mayor for the money.’