Final hour budget cuts reduce funding for museum, police
June 11, 2020
On Tuesday, the Haines Borough Assembly passed a $19.7 million operating and capital budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1, including $1,860,626 in CARES Act Funds and $7,209,000 in state and federal grants for capital projects. The budget’s final passage was marked by a number of last-minute amendments.
This year, the borough faced unexpected shortfalls including loss of the state’s portion of school bond debt payments, roughly $900,000, as well as a projected 50% reduction in sales tax revenue due to COVID-19. Instead of increasing property tax rates, assembly members looked to cuts to balance the budget.
Cuts introduced at meetings earlier this spring totaled roughly $600,000 compared to the prior fiscal year, including elimination of funding for the Haines Economic Development Corporation and the Mosquito Lake Community Center, transfer of the Community Youth Development Program to the Haines School District, reduced staffing and hours of operation at the library and museum, a three-month summer closure of the pool and budget reductions for the tourism department.
At Tuesday’s meeting, the assembly reversed the cut to the Mosquito Lake Community Center. Members said they were impressed with recent food security activities at the center including the planting of a victory garden.
Assembly member Brenda Josephson proposed using $10,000 of the borough’s roughly $4 million in CARES Act money to fund the Mosquito Lake Community Center through the end of 2020. Josephson said she thought this would be a permissible use of CARES Act funds given recent food security efforts.
In a 3-3 tie broken by Mayor Jan Hill, the assembly voted to add another $10,000 in borough funds, on top of the CARES Act money, to ensure the facility is able to operate through June 30, 2021. Members Josephson, Jerry Lapp and Gabe Thomas voted “no” to the extra $10,000 but ended up supporting the final $20,000 amendment, which passed unanimously.
Josephson proposed an additional cut to the Haines Sheldon Museum based on input from museum board president Kelleen Adams at a budget meeting in May.
At the May meeting, Adams said the museum could continue to function with staffing cut back to two full-time positions—the executive director and museum coordinator—for a total of $150,000. She said the museum board is discussing the potential for partial closure in the winter, but complete closure is not feasible due to collections management that must continue even when the museum is closed to the public.
The amendment passed unanimously but was not supported by the museum’s executive director Helen Alten, who spoke during public comment at the end of the meeting.
Alten said she was blindsided by the cut and wished the assembly had sought input before moving forward with it.
Josephson also proposed an amendment to reduce funding for the police department by $35,000, roughly 5% of the department’s budget. Josephson didn’t offer specifics about where the cuts would come from.
“There’s been a lot of belt tightening (in other departments), and I believe that if they look into their budget and look creatively, they can come up with a plan that works,” Josephson said.
Josephson said while she hopes the cut will challenge the police department to find savings, if it turns out the cuts are unachievable, it should be possible to restore some of the funding using money from the CARES Act.
Assembly member Zephyr Sincerny said it would be valuable to get chief Heath Scott’s input before approving the amendment. The amendment passed 5-1 with Thomas in opposition.
In an email to the CVN the following morning, Scott said he was not consulted before the cut was proposed and declined to comment further.
At a previous budget meeting, the assembly had tabled a motion by member Paul Rogers to cut funding for the Chilkat Center for the Arts. At Tuesday’s meeting, Rogers withdrew the motion.
The assembly passed a motion separate from the budget directing the interim manger to begin discussion with Alaska Indian Arts (AIA) to clarify ownership of the building.
Lapp, who proposed the motion, said he wants to put an end to the discussion of letting the building revert to AIA ownership.
“We’re using taxpayer money to fund it, and so it should belong to us by now,” Lapp said.
Sincerny suggested scheduling the budget for an additional hearing in light of amendments to the police, museum and Mosquito Lake Community Center budgets to give the public an opportunity to weigh in. But none of the assembly members made a motion to do so. The budget passed 5-1 with Sincerny the sole “no” vote.
Although facilities like the Chilkat Center and the Mosquito Lake Community Center remained in the budget this year, discussion of future cuts is likely.
At the meeting, Josephson said she was disappointed that this winter’s discussions of creative cost-saving solutions fizzled out. She said she looks forward to future conversations with various stakeholders in the community.
In recent years, the state has spent down its savings accounts. The fiscal year that begins July 1 is going to drain savings to the point where the state will be forced to consider options including a statewide tax, cuts to Permanent Fund Dividends and cuts to state services in order to balance the budget. Whatever the state decides is likely to impact the economic outlook for the Haines Borough and its residents.
Future budgets need to acknowledge new realities in the community and the state’s financial situations, Josephson said. She said she doesn’t think additional taxes are the answer for Haines. The community needs to find innovative ways to continue to provide the services residents value, she said.