The Homer City Council responded to the current state fiscal debate with a letter sent to the Alaska legislature and Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, outlining the impacts currently budgeted cuts would have on the city and region.The letter, approved unanimously by the council Monday night, noted that job losses from the $444 million in vetoes to the state operating budget implemented by Gov. Mike Dunleavy would impact the region’s property and sales tax revenues, which make up 72 % of the city’s general fund budget.
In addition, since the majority of the city’s tourists are fellow Alaskans, the economy would be further impacted by budget reductions that economists and business leaders statewide predict would have far-reaching impacts in Alaska.
More specifically, however, the city council expressed concern over the $130 million veto to funding for the University of Alaska, which employs 56 full and part-time professionals locally, with Mayor Castner pointing out that many local students depend on UAA funding for tuition.
“Some of them have already approached The Homer Foundation saying that I’ve got 16 thousand dollars that was coming my way and all of a sudden that’s a zero. I don’t know how I can go to school this fall. It’s something that the legislature has just automatically always done every year and it’s being held as a trading chip, said Mayor Castner.
Cuts to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and vetoes of almost $49 million in school bond debt reimbursement statewide would force the district to consider school closures and consolidation, the letter noted, saying that good schools attract young families and the loss of teachers and schools would have the opposite effect.
The city council was also concerned about impacts to health and social programs such as the state’s need-based senior benefits program, which serves 1,200 seniors locally, and the Homer Head Start early childhood education program. While some on the council expressed the opinion that the state would adapt and adjust to budget cuts over time, others, like Councilmember Rachel Lord, said the cuts were too much, too soon.
“We’re talking about the capitol budget – is not funded. There are local matching dollars on the table for harbor projects, There are federal matching dollars on the table for infrastructure projects. Health care dollars, public safety dollars, education dollars, university - change can happen but change should happen with time and leadership and vision," said Lord.
The council also discussed changing its budget process from a one-year budget to a two-year budget to better prepare for long-range projects and expenses. The ordinance changing the budgeting process was introduced at this week’s meeting, Councilmember Caroline Venuti said there are lots of details to address in a work session before council holds a public hearing on the subject.
“I know that this requires forecasting 30 months ahead, forecasting our revenue and then estimating our personnel needs? Two years is a lot of time for that. And then reviewing our budget requests that come in. Ultimately it would be the council that would be in trouble. I’m very hesitant about this. I think a work session could give us information," said Venuti.
The council held an executive session to discuss its case with the Regulatory Commission of Alaska regarding the rates set by ENSTAR for natural gas on the Southern Kenai Peninsula. ENSTAR wants to modify the current surcharge to pay back millions of dollars in construction costs for the 2013 gas line extension, but local officials contest the surcharge. Hearings on the case will be held next week in Anchorage.
And, Mayor Castner swore in new Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mark Kirko and thanked interim Chief Robert Purcell, who came out of retirement to fill the spot in December and help hire the next chief of the local department.