Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce’s budget plan took a $4.5 million hit at Tuesday night’s meeting.
Pierce had proposed using more than half of the borough’s $7.5 million land trust fund to help fill the borough’s ongoing budget gap and provide flat funding to the school district. But the assembly voted down that move.
Instead, it seeks to find new revenue in other places. But as the meeting ground into hour number five, patience seemed to be wearing thin. Pierce said his concern was in spending down the borough’s fund balance too much if those other sources of revenue don’t turn up.
“I don’t understand why you’re comfortable, after hearing the conversation you heard today in regards to the state of the budget that we’re in. Maybe you didn’t understand the conversation. Maybe it was too complex," Pierce said to the assembly. "And I’m willing to say maybe you can come back to (borough finance director Brandi Harbaugh) and ask questions in regards to the consequences of spending down our fund balance. And Mr. Bagley, I take issue with you sitting there smiling at the comments I’m making. It’s serious. I’d appreciate respect as well from the assembly.”
“I just want to assure the mayor that I understand complex issues," said assembly member Dale Bagley, a former borough mayor himself. "I’m a product of our Soldotna school district. Just because we don’t agree on an issue doesn’t mean that one side’s wrong and one side’s right and that we don’t understand the issues.”
But the decision to leave the land trust fund money alone created another debate. How low to set the floor for education funding. The mayor had proposed about $3 million less than last year, based on the presumption that a temporary fix was found in the land trust. But after that fell through, even the assembly’s more fiscally conservative members weren’t willing to sign off on such a drastic cut to education funding.
“I’m at the point now where I believe that we cannot have the uncertainty of not having the $3 million flat funding," assembly president Wayne Ogle said. "We need to look at where the fund source is. I think there’s always a chance to revisit how we get the money. But I think that we need to provide that (certainty) tonight. I’m going to be voting for the $49,738, 432.”
But even with flat funding, the district could still lose 11.5 positions next year. That's a scenario superintendent Sean Dusek has been trying to avoid as he's lobbied for funding the district to the cap allowed by the state.
“How the funds are generated is up to the assembly and this is proving to be a very difficult decision. But it is one that has to be made sooner rather than later. I stand ready to support you in your efforts and provide you all the information you need to make the best decision possible for this borough and the school district moving forward.”
That’s one difficult desicion made, but there are others left before next year’s budget is finalized. The assembly is still mulling the idea of a sales tax increase. That ordinance will get another hearing May 15th.
*Correction: This story has been updated to clarify the number of teaching positions that could be cut with flat funding from the borough.