Borough debates school funding, landfill closures

The Kenai Peninsula Borough assembly got into the weeds on its budget Tuesday night, with great attention on funding for the school district and closing the landfill for one day a week.

Of Borough Mayor Mike Navarre’s total proposed general fund budget of approximately $79.7 million, about $52.6 million — around 65 percent — would be transferred to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District for its operations, in-kind services and debt service.

The school district approved its budget of $139.5 million in April, but several members of the assembly supported the idea of funding the school district to the greatest amount allowed by the state. The adjustment to the borough’s contribution would have appropriated an extra $782,622 for the school district’s 2017 fiscal year.

A number of factors are at play in the school district’s budget. A legislative conference committee voted to not to include the equivalent of a $50 increase to the base student allocation amount to education funding, which will result in cuts of more than $1 million for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District — approximately $886,000 directly from the state, and another approximately $203,000 from the borough because when the state’s contribution is reduced, the maximum contribution from the borough is decreased as well. Additionally, the school district has not reached a contract for its employees and support staff yet. Depending on the contract provisions, costs for health care and salaries may increase.

Assembly member Kelly Cooper proposed raising the contribution, saying that if the borough is investing in other elements of its three core services — education, trash and roads — then it needs to invest in education as well.

“I do believe that with the state budget being at the difficult times it’s facing in the several years ahead … we need to maintain that fund balance for the school district,” Cooper said.

However, the mayor opposed raising the contribution right now. The school district passed a budget, so the borough is not underfunding the district by not funding to the cap, he said. The Legislature’s decisions aside, the borough assembly could add on the additional funding later, he said. Waiting until the end of the year allows the borough to see the actual impacts of the changes to the school district’s fund balance and the Legislature’s actions before putting more funding into the school district.

“We have until June 30 of next year to fund to the cap,” Navarre said. “We can do it any time between now and then.”

Assembly president Blaine Gilman said he was concerned about the school district’s future fund balance. The district cannot raise funds to replenish its diminished fund balance amount, but the borough can raise property or sales taxes in the future, he said. Additionally, the size of the Kenai Peninsula Borough makes running services more expensive than in a smaller geographic area like Anchorage or Juneau, so the borough should provide more funding to deliver the services, he said.

“What’s happening in the state Legislature, it’s unfortunate, but there are probably going to be further cuts to school funding,” Gilman said. “That will reduce the amount that the borough can pay to the cap for the school district … then the school district will have to spend their fund balance. So it’s important at this point to help increase the fund balance.”

The assembly failed the ordinance, leaving the school funding at the mayor’s recommended amount for now.

Another point of contention was the proposed closure of Central Peninsula Landfill in Soldotna for one day each week. The mayor’s proposed budget included closing the landfill and transfer sites on Thursdays each week and on select holidays each year, with proposed savings of approximately $275,000 annually. Several assembly members proposed amendments to the suggestion, saying that it could cause a public health hazard and possibly fines to businesses if their trash were not collected on one weekday.

Assembly member Dale Bagley proposed an amendment to keep the landfill open on Memorial Day, one of the select holidays that the mayor proposed to close the landfill, which passed. However, another amendment he made to stop the closures did not pass. He urged the assembly to consider the consequences of leaving residents and tourists without somewhere to take their trash.

“I think the public angst and the dumping of trash around this borough in different places is not worth the (money) that it could save,” Bagley said. “… I think this is going to cause a major disruption, and I do know most people out there are not aware of this.”

Sara Crapuchettes, the contracts manager for Alaska Waste on the Kenai Peninsula, testified to the assembly, asking them to leave the landfill open seven days a week. The impact on businesses would be chaotic and the presence of trash could cause a public health hazard, she said.

“You are looking at major safety concerns for your community, your citizens, your companies,” Crapuchettes said.

Assembly member Brandii Holmdahl, who also works as a corporate quality operations manager for Icicle Seafoods in Seward, said seafood manufacturers have to abide by a federal regulation to clear their trash every day. After Bagley’s amendment failed, she proposed an amendment to keep the landfills open seven days per week during July and August to accommodate the highest-volume season, transitioning to a six-day per week operation schedule from September through June.

“This is necessary for (seafood) businesses, specifically, but I also think it’s really important for tourists who are coming to our population so they don’t have to adjust when we’re hitting our busiest time,” Holmdahl said.

Holmdahl’s amendment passed eight to one, with assembly member Stan Welles voting against it. Welles said he thought the public could get used to a six-day schedule given enough time and that he would not be voting for any increases to the mayor’s budget this year.

The assembly will discuss the budget again at its June 7 meeting.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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