The 18 groups of people seeking help for causes such as resettling war refugees, providing safer equipment for student athletes and assisting the poor with heating bills held their collective breaths while awaiting judgment from their leaders.
The drama on Wednesday night was what was deemed worthy of about $1 million provided out of about $3 million sought for the various causes — and who among those denied might live to fight another day — as the Juneau Assembly’s Finance Committee evaluated requests for “action items” initially funded in next year’s proposed budget.
The problem for Assembly members is the initial budget already started with a deficit of about $3.5 million, not including additional all-but-certain items such as wage increases for city employees being negotiated. So while there was near-unanimous agreement nearly every item on the request list is worthy in concept, the leaders aren’t in a position to responsibly grant all of them — even though what they did approve put the city another $1 million in the red.
“Every time we go for an ongoing expense we’re adding to our deficit and it’s just going to get worse from here on out,” Mayor Beth Weldon said after one such request was approved, echoing a theme she sounded much of the evening. “Two years from now we’re going to have to make decisions about raising taxes or cutting spending because of the decisions we’re making here today.”
The struggle in making such decisions was evident early with a Juneau School District request for about $158,000 that includes four wrestling mats to be shared by Dzantik’i Heeni Middle School and Floyd Dryden Middle School. The mats at FDMS have tears and holes after more than 20 years of use, Ken Brown, the school’s wrestling coach, stated Monday in a letter to Weldon.
“I fear if we continue to use these mats in competition and practice we run the risk of student athletes suffering serious injury,” he wrote.
Weldon, in a change from her overall approach, was among the CBJ Assembly members favoring the request since she said wrestling is a low-cost sport accessible to students from all economic classifications. Among those opposing it was Assembly member Alicia Hughes-Skandijs, who noted other budget items generally have already been subject to scrutiny and she was troubled by the last-moment process putting the mat funding before the committee.
“I think given the decisions we’re going to make here tonight, which are hard decisions, I think making a decision about that on the fly after running into a coach in the community is not the approach we want to take when making the decisions we need to tonight,” she said.
The vote went down to the wire, with Assembly member Maria Gladziszewski casting the deciding vote against after a long hesitation. In an interview during a break, she said she shared the concern of others about the hasty nature of the request and other programs with similar needs resorting to such an approach.
Another action item discussed at length was $210,000 to help provide an additional 14% raise for employees at Eaglecrest Ski Area, supplementing a 7% increase approved by Assembly members earlier this year. The initial increase was approved after the ski area earned national headlines for long lines and staff shortages due to pay being below the state minimum wage — which doesn’t apply to government workers — and the additional raise was sought to bring wages roughly to those paid at private ski areas nationwide.
Numerous issues were raised such as whether Eaglecrest employees should be added to the personnel system covering most city employees and if the ski area can fund some or all of the raises by raising prices. There were also questions about whether the additional raises should be given to all employees and to what extent providing them will remedy the staffing crisis given the volatile job situation nationwide.
“(The 7%) may not be enough, but I’m saying they need a plan going forward,” Weldon said, noting the ski area can make a supplemental request this fall or winter before the season begins.
The committee ultimately adopted a proposal by Assembly member Greg Smith to provide $55,000 for additional raises with instructions for Eaglecrest to supply the same amount on its own, with Weldon dissenting.
Many of the other action items also were approved with modifications and some were postponed until the committee’s meeting next week or beyond for further evaluation. Actions taken by the committee include:
■ Approving $108,000 to ensure the Alaska Heat Smart has an adequate cash flow reserve, which will allow it to properly and efficiently administer more than $2 million in federal grants awarded to install heating pumps in 160 low-income homes.
■ Approving $30,000 to extend the operation of a warming shelter at Resurrection Lutheran Church by one month, keeping it available until April when the downtown Mill Campground where many unsheltered locals stay opens.
■ Postponing indefinitely a $50,050 Juneau Human Rights Commission for an Afghan Refugee Sponsor Circle, with Weldon saying more information is needed before considering funding.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at email@example.com.