PALMER — Mat-Su Borough Mayor Vern Halter was giddy as he gaveled out on the second night of borough budget deliberations. The Mat-Su Borough Assembly had scheduled four meetings next week and two additional meetings in June in preparation for late answer on funding from Juneau. The Assembly took only two days to pass a budget with an areawide mill rate of 10.386 and a non area wide of .573.
On the first day of budget deliberations, the assembly decided to adopt the substitute manager’s proposed budget which was prepared as a worst case scenario for state funding. The Manager’s budget had a mill rate of 11.552 which the Assembly was able to cut through a lengthy amendment process. On voting on the original substitute budget, Assemblyman Ted Leonard uttered a phrase he would repeat frequently over the two budget meetings.
“I will not vote for a budget that has a mill rate over 10.331 and I would hope that the mayor would veto any budget that has a mill rate over 10.331,” Leonard said.
Ted Leonard joined Assemblyman George McKee and Jesse Sumner in voting against the final budget ordinance. Deputy Mayor Matthew Beck, Tam Boeve, Dan Mayfield and Jim Sykes voted for the budget. The Assembly set the mill rate without expecting $9.2 million in school bond debt reimbursement funds to come from the state.
“When things are hard is when really integrity is the most important,” said Halter.
Mayfield and Leonard sponsored the amendment that would create a reserve for future government cost shifting.
“That hopefully will provide us some protections for some reductions in the future that may come about with this administration, and of course that will only kick in if we receive more money from the state, if we receive money from the state for School Bond Debt Reimbursement,” said Mayfield speaking to his amendment.
Sumner said that he doesn’t like holding people’s money or taxing them more than they need and said that it would only fix the problem for one year. The amendment to create a reserve for future governmental cost shift passed with Deputy Mayor Beck, Sykes and McKee opposed.
Multiple amendments to the budget were centered around the Animal Control department. Sumner’s amendment to reduce the Animal Care and Regulation Division by over $1.5 million failed. Boeve submitted amendment 13 which would create a second on-call Animal Care Dispatcher. Animal Care Dispatchers often respond to 911 calls when there is an animal in the building. The total increase of $40,507 was voted down with only Boeve and Sykes in support. Boeve spoke emotionally about the fleeing the 2015 Sockeye Wildfire with vehicles full of animals and the care that they received following the blaze.
“I honestly don’t know how we would’ve saved as many animals as we did without animal control,” said Boeve.
While Sumner voted against increasing the Animal Control budget and said that he will continue to do so as long as he is on the Assembly, he noted that he would like a nonprofit organization to take over operation of the shelter, but feels that the Borough’s funding of Animal Control is a valid expenditure. Boeve’s Amendment 10 passed, adding $150,795 for a permanent Public Affairs Director position. After longtime Borough Public Information Officer Patty Sullivan left, the position was left vacant and Borough Manager John Moosey left the position out of his budget in an effort to cut costs.
“The lack of communication after the November earthquake was an embarrassment,” said Boeve in support of her amendment.
Other wage decrease ordinances did not pass. Sumner offered amendments to strike all expense reimbursement, travel tickets and training reimbursement to zero which failed. Sumner’s amendment to cut the wages of the Deputy mayor by $7,500 and each Assembly member by $6,700 also failed. However, Sumner’s amendment to remove $41,000 from membership fees to the Alaska Municipal League did pass.
“We don’t need to be a member of this. Anchorage isn’t. It’s a pretty easy thing to save money on,” said Sumner
Mayor Halter spoke in support of taking part in the conferences, the newly elected official training and the dialogue at AML events. Manager Moosey presented at the February conference in Juneau about the how the cyber attack was dealt with last year. Leonard took offense to how some AML members acted this year and agreed with Sumner that the he believes the policies that the AML is pushing are opposed to the interests of the Borough. Sumner and Leonard were joined by George Mckee and Jim Sykes in eliminating the Borough’s membership fees to the AML. While not all Assembly members were happy with the final result, the budget was passed prior to the deadline.
“I’m glad that we didn’t push our deadline for passing a budget. I think it’s responsible that we got one out in a timely manner,” Sumner said.
While the budget produced by the Assembly would not require the 70/30 share of funds for School Bond Debt Reimbursement agreed to by the state, the Borough would not take a hit if the debt reimbursement was cut to 50/50. However, if Governor Dunleavy decides to veto School Bond Debt Reimbursement in its entirety, the Borough would take the financial hit.
“We have a difficult process. Some of it was about money, some of it was about ideology, but really the problem was created in Juneau and passed down to us,” Mayfield said.
The Assembly will meet next for it’s regularly scheduled June 4 meeting.