The Haines Borough Assembly May 25 is slated to adopt its $11 million operating and capital budget, and will consider amending it to include as much as $118,000 in grant requests from community organizations.
During discussion at a budget workshop May 11, some assembly members said community organizations on the list provided valuable services in town, but others said giving annual grants to some organizations opened the borough up to potentially never-ending requests and said the borough was in danger of becoming "a welfare state."
Twelve organizations are requesting borough grants this year, among them the Haines Chamber of Commerce; Haines Friends of Recycling; Lynn Canal Counseling Services; Chilkat Valley Preschool; the Haines Dolphins Swim Team; Southeast Senior Services; Big Brothers Big Sisters; Chilkat Valley Community Foundation; Southeast Alaska State Fair; Southeast Alaska Independent Living; and others.
Assemblyman Steve Vick raised the possibility of making a single lump-sum grant each year to a nonprofit such as the Chilkat Valley Community Foundation, which could solicit requests and award funds on the borough’s behalf.
Assemblyman Scott Rossman said the borough should be responsible for making the grants.
Rossman said, in general, he opposed giving money to community organizations, as the groups treated grants of taxpayer money from the borough as "entitlements" and wrote the money into their budgets.
"My question is, ‘Where does it stop?’" Rossman asked. "Every year the list grows a little longer. Now we’re looking at adding another $100,000 to our already deficited budget."
Rossman said he preferred not to grant any of the requests, but said since he didn’t think other assembly members would agree, he was be willing to vote for money to three organizations the borough had traditionally supported financially: Chilkat Valley Preschool, Lynn Canal Counseling Service, and the Southeast Alaska State Fair.
Borough manager Mark Earnest said the borough had budgeted to spend 3 percent of its $4.7 million general fund balance to compensate for a drop in projected revenue due to the economic downturn. Earnest said granting the full amounts requested by community organizations would mean spending down a total of 5 percent of the fund balances.
Assemblyman Jerry Lapp said he thought some of the organizations offered redundant services in town, and agreed the list was growing each year.
"It’s starting to be a welfare state," Lapp said.
Assemblywoman Joanne Waterman said though all the nonprofits on the list were worthy, the assembly had difficult decisions to make. "It’s hard to be in a position to say no."
Waterman said the assembly should look through all the requests to identify any places where organizations were paying rent to the borough that could be forgiven, giving as an example rent paid by a senior services group for use of the Senior Center.
"As a community, it’s a good thing that we’re doing this," said assemblyman Daymond Hoffman about granting community requests. "There are people in need in the community. As difficult as it is to spend this money, I think we should be somewhat happy that we can help other members in the community."
Hoffman said he was in favor of investigating potential redundancies in funding, and in making the grants as efficient as possible.
Assemblyman Norm Smith questioned increasing an appropriation to Lynn Canal Counseling Services to $30,000 this year, saying subsidizing counseling attracted mentally ill and disturbed people to Haines.
The borough has granted at least $20,000 to LCCS the last three years.
"Are we perpetuating this by providing more money?" Smith asked. "Are we throwing good money after bad, so to speak? This is very disturbing.
"If you don’t charge for this, where does it end?"
LCCS director Becky Chapin said demand for counseling services had increased in recent years, particularly for youth, and said the organization needed an additional clinician on staff. Counseling helped troubled and mentally ill residents be more functional participants in the community, she said.
Chapin said there were many needy families in Haines, and said she had no explanation why demand had increased the past year. The counseling center was reimbursed by Medicaid for services to many patients, but "a lot of people don’t have the ability to pay, and that stretches us pretty thin.
"The Haines Borough provides 3 percent of our budget. We don’t ask for more than we need."
Skagway, on the other hand, fully funds its local counseling staff person, appropriating as much as $100,000 annually, Chapin said. "Eighty percent of the funds come from Skagway, which uses 30 percent of the services."
Smith was also critical of a request for $6,000 by Southeast Senior Services, a group that provides transportation and a lunch program for senior citizens. The borough granted the group $5,000 last year.
Senior services representative Marsha Partlow said the organization raised its request by $1,000 this year to cover a rent increase at the senior center taking effect June 1.
"How can you serve lunch for $3?" Smith asked. "That lunch program has been a give-away for years."
Partlow said the true cost of the lunch was about $20 per person, and the price was subsidized by federal, state and local grant money.
Smith said the organization should raise the price of lunches to $4. Senior services employee Leslie Whittington said a goal of the lunch program is that it be accessible to all seniors.
In related news, the assembly considered charging residents for ambulance service.
Chief fiscal officer Jila Stuart said the budget for medical service was projected to be about $41,000 in the red due to projected declines in sales tax revenue. "I’m hopeful we’ve been very conservative about sales tax and we won’t actually be taking $41,000 out of the fund balance."
Lapp said perhaps the ambulance service should be free to those without insurance and the borough should bill the cost to insurance for those residents who did have policies.
Smith said all residents should be charged $250 for an ambulance ride. "I’ve been a proponent of billing people who have insurance. Where does this free lunch thing end? This whole town has turned into a welfare community."
Rossman said the borough should charge something to all residents who used the service to help cover costs.
Earnest said his experience with billing for the cost of ambulance service had shown it to be "a slow and painful administrative process" in which most of the cost was not recovered.