June 14, 2012 | Volume 42, No.24

Assembly OKs $11.3 million budget

Haines Borough Assembly members Tuesday unanimously approved the government’s $11.3 million spending plan for the coming year.

They raised the areawide property tax rate about one quarter mill, to 7.63 mills, and lowered by about a half mill the tax rate in the townsite, to 10.79 mills.

To balance the budget, they also withdrew $180,000 from fund balance reserves of more than $4 million.

Member Jerry Lapp sought the areawide property tax rate, which is .76 mills lower than the manager’s recommendation at the start of the budget process and .20 mills higher than last year’s rate.

Lapp said the reduction recognized $188,000 that the borough received from the State of Alaska aimed at lowering municipal taxes.

On a last-minute amendment by member Steve Vick, the assembly also restored $20,181 to the Haines public library and Sheldon Museum, raising their level of borough funding to match amounts given last year. Member Debra Schnabel cast the lone vote against Vick’s amendment.

After considerable discussion, the assembly left $50,400 in the budget to pay Washington, D.C.-based lobbyist Brad Gilman. Early in the budget season, members discussed eliminating lobbying funds, saying paying for lobbying didn’t make sense as there was no federal money to be had.

But Mayor Stephanie Scott, earlier a proponent of cutting lobbying, said a recent discussion with Gilman convinced her that the borough should fund the lobbyist and participate more actively with Gilman to get a return. She has proposed an ad hoc committee, including chamber of commerce and school officials, for developing federal wish lists.

Schnabel proposed cutting lobbying funding to $20,000, but manager Mark Earnest said Gilman would be willing to work only for a minimum of $36,000. Earnest said borough acquisition of Picture Point property with federal funds “would not have happened” without Gilman.

Earnest said it may be impossible to quantify Gilman’s value. “If the money doesn’t come to Haines, it will go somewhere else.”

Member Daymond Hoffman said the borough should focus more on getting more for its lobbying money. “Maybe we lost focus… Let’s come up with an idea of what we want to go for.”

Schnabel said the borough had hired Gilman because it was “hot” to get a new boat harbor. “I’m willing to negotiate a (new) rate because we’re not getting us a harbor,” she said. She cast the lone vote for reducing the spending.

Assembly members also were told that the borough had no contract with Gilman. “There were conversations and communications and correspondence and a scope of work, but there’s no formal contract for his services,” Mayor Scott said.

Also as part of budget discussions, the assembly approved $3,000 from economic development money to help fund a Little League baseball tournament here this summer and for a 30th anniversary celebration of the Alaska Chilkat Bald Eagle Preserve.

Resident Ned Rozbicki urged members to restrain spending, saying that businesses in town are suffering and that taxation here is substantial. Increased property valuations in the last four years amount to a big increase in government funding, he said.

“You’ve absorbed that into the government,” he said.

Chief financial officer Jila Stuart said the estimated $2.19 million fund balance in the townsite general fund was “arguably too much fund balance.” A rule of thumb is to leave in fund balance enough surplus to pay for six months of operation. The townsite service area fund is big enough to fund the former City of Haines for about 22 months, Stuart estimated.

In other action, the assembly approved a fine of $60 for Lentikof boat ramp users who are caught not paying ramp fees. Assembly members last week reduced the proposed cost of an annual ramp sticker to $60. An earlier proposal would have set the fine at $100.

Harbormaster Phil Benner testified that fines are typically more than the fees for using the ramp.

The assembly voted 5-1 to make the fee and the fine match, with Schnabel opposed.