Editor’s note: this story has been changed to correct the year Kenai began planting the Field of Flowers.
In a meeting that ended ten minutes before midnight on Wednesday evening, the Kenai city council passed its fiscal year 2016 budget and used funding from the previous year’s budget to buy iPads, new microphones, and power outlet stations for the council chamber.
After council members had proposed and voted on changes, the final version of the budget had a general fund expenditure of $15,544,659 and a revenue over expenditure balance of $104,273.
The council had previously decided to give city manager Rick Koch a $2000 increase in base pay with a $2000 bonus, city attorney Scott Bloom and city clerk Sandra Modigh a 1.4 percent cost of living increase in base pay, with a $4,700 bonus for Bloom and a $1000 bonus for Modigh. The final budget included these increases, as well as $20,000 of extra funding requested by council member Ryan Marquis for alternate plan to develop a city park.
The 170 page draft budget prepared by the city administration contained $20,000 for the design of a playground at Kenai’s Beaver Creek Park. An earlier draft budget had devoted $40,000 to Beaver Creek Park design, but at its May 8 budget work session, council voted to reduce the item to $20,000. In addition to restoring the lost $20,000, Marquis proposed to spend the $40,000 total on equipment and construction costs rather than on design.
“In my day job I buy playground equipment every year, equipment that ends up in the schools,” said Marquis, who is a maintenance supply specialist for the Kenai Peninsula Borough. “I’m not aware of a time that we’ve actually paid thousands of dollars to design the playground. We take that money and spend it on the actual construction.”
Marquis said he believed the equipment could be purchased and installed by spring 2016 if the design phase was skipped and the extra funding added.
Council member Tim Navarre said that the neighborhood surrounding the park should have an opportunity to participate in the playground design.
Council member Terry Bookey said spending the playground money on construction was preferable to spending it on design, drawing a comparison to the council’s 2014 debates over the designing a playground for Kenai’s Municipal Park, on which the city spent $275,717.
“In a lot of cases… the city likes to study things to death,” Bookey said. “As a result of that, the Municipal Park Playground got a lot more convoluted than it needed to. And in fact we probably spent more money than we needed to because of that… We’ve looked after the city of Kenai for a destination-type park, with the Municipal Park.”
We’re looking at neighborhood parks now. I’d rather we be spending money to actually do something and have something tangible that people can use and play on by this winter.”
Marquis’s amendment passed, with Navarre and Gabriel voting against it.
A second budget amendment by Marquis proposed to eliminate a $4000 grant to the Kenai Historical Society to hire a summer tour guide for the Old Town Kenai cabins.
“While those cabins are a great addition to the city and I encourage what the historical society is doing, I think there are a number of non-profit groups that are also a benefit to the city,” Marquis said. “Other non-profit grants that we fund generally have some kind of service involved… that’s why I justify for myself funding those. But this one goes a little too far for me.”
In the fiscal year 2016 budget, the council gave $30,100 grants to 7 non-profits, including the Peninsula Oilers baseball team, the Kenai Boys and Girls Club, the Kenai Watershed Forum, the Kenai Economic Outlook Forum, and the Kenai Chamber of Commerce. The grants come from a fund in the city budget designated for that purpose.
Kenai Mayor Pat Porter, supporting the donation, said the historical cabins were city property and that the tour guide who would be supported by the donation performed a service to the city.
The amendment failed, with Porter, Knackstedt, Gabriel, Navarre, Molloy voting against it.
Marquis’ third and final budget amendment proposed removing $10,000 designated for improvement of the Field of Flowers, a wildflower field created by Kenai two years ago as a summer attraction. The improvements, approved by the council in a March meeting include fences, trails, and signs. The council had also previously approved the purchase of an $8000 gazebo with funds from last year’s budget.
Molloy was the first to speak in support of the amendment, saying the field was “great the way it is.” He contrasted the field with the city’s parks.
“We have sufficient developed parks in the city, and I don’t support developing that property further into what would be another park,” Molloy said.
Porter said that some of the improvement money was required to reseed the currently vacant field to its previous condition, a job that would more expensive due to last year’s vandalism of the field by an intoxicated nineteen-year-old who drove over it in truck. Asked by Porter to confirm this statement, Koch said that some of the improvement money would go toward reseeding, while “the bulk” of it would be for fencing.
“I think some of what’s happened with this Field of Flowers has altered the way I look at these things,” said Bookey, against the Field improvements. “We did a good thing: we took a dirt field, and we spent a few thousand dollars and seeded it. Everybody praised us for our simplicity. In the end, what this body has taught me is that maybe I shouldn’t support those sort of things. Because now we spent another $8000 for a gazebo. Now we’re looking at putting another $10,000 worth of improvements into it. If I had a do-over, I wouldn’t want to put flowers on that field.”
Navarre said the fence and trails would be necessary to prevent vandalism.
“Unfortunately, when you do some things, there’s some things you have to do,” he said. “I think these are good, positive improvements that have a good for our community.”
Gabriel also called the fences necessary protection.
“I agree with some of the council about keeping it simple, but these are one-time costs that could go to protect that field for years to come,” Gabriel said.
Asked by Bookey, city attorney Scott Bloom said that the city had some restitution money from the prosecution of the driver, although neither he nor finance director Terry Eubank were certain how much, and that collection of the restitution hadn’t been completed.
The motion to remove the $10,000 for field improvement failed with Porter, Gabriel, Knackstedt, and Navarre voting against it.
A last motion to amend the budget was made by Bookey, who proposed a change related to a recent study meant to determine whether the pay rates of city employees are commensurate with their responsibilities. City employee pay rates are determined by two designations: the “range,” which reflects the value of a job, and the “step,” a letter-scale grade reflecting an employee’s experience. City employees move up a step for each year spent in a given range. One recommendation of the study, implemented in the fiscal year 2016 budget, raised the ranges of some employees, consequently resetting their grades. Bookey moved to preserve the grades of employees who were moved up in range.
Asked by Navarre, Koch said that none of the affected employees were losing pay from the range-raise and grade-reset. Navarre opposed the motion, along with Gabriel.
“I look at it like: if you’re in a range, and you apply for a job in a higher classification (range) — more or less a promotion — you’re promoted to that scale not with your longevity in that scale,” Gabriel said. “So I look it at like we’re giving these employees a promotion to reflect the job they’re doing.”
Bookey countered Gabriel using his own city-employee career as an example. Bookey began working for the city as a member of the parks and recreation department and later moved to the fire department, resetting his grade. He said that this grade reset, unlike those which would result from the classification study, came from his own choice rather than the city’s.
“When we increase the range in these positions, we are not giving them a promotion,” Bookey said. “We’re identifying that the class that they are is at this range… I’m specifically concerned about where they are in the job that they were doing before we did this classification, and are they still in that same job, doing the same thing they were doing? If that is in fact the case, if we drop them from (their steps), you’re taking time that they’ve been in that position… It’s not a promotion, it’s the same job. I think we need to continue to pay them for the time they’ve put in that job title.”
The motion failed, with Gabriel, Knackstedt, Navarre, and Porter voting against it.
Afterward, the council passed the budget unanimously.
An item to purchase improvements for the council dais — the desk at which council members sit during meetings — was also debated, and partially approved. In a memo to council, Koch recommended three purchases based on a May 5 council worksession: a new microphone system, seven iPads for the use of council members, and a station with a power and USB plug-in at each dais seat. The fiscal year 2015 budget allotted $25,000 for these improvements, with an additional $8,000 from the fiscal year 2016 budget dedicated to microphones.
In response to council’s questions, City Information Technology Manager Dan Castimore elaborated on the items. He said the prospective power stations resembled those presently in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly chamber. Koch said the microphones were also similar, and had the same brand, as those used in the Borough Assembly. Castimore said they would enhance the archive recordings and live-streaming of council meetings.
The council unanimously agreed to buy the power stations for $3000 and microphones for $9000. The $3500 iPad purchase however, provoked debate.
Bookey said buying the iPads before establishing a detailed policy for their use was “putting the cart before the horse.”
“What would be the policy if I broke it, I lost it?” Bookey said. “Are these iPads strictly WiFi, or do they have data? If they have data, who’s responsible for that? The applications that can be installed, the applications that can’t be installed. So on and so forth… I think we should have a council policy to address that.”
Nonetheless, Bookey said iPads would benefit the council if a policy were established first, and that he could “probably support (the purchase at a different time).”
City Clerk Sandra Modigh said a policy would be proposed before the iPads were distributed to council members, and estimated that it be drafted in a month. She said she intended to “look at other communities and see what their policies look like.”
Marquis said that he, “unless forced by this body,” would continue using his personal laptop at council meetings.
“I have used i-things in the past, and I’m not a big fan of them,” Marquis said. “If you go forward with buying these iPads, I request you buy one less until somebody else in on the council, because I don’t intend to use it.”
Molloy, who currently brings his own iPad to council meetings, said the device made it easy to navigate between the agenda, the council packet, and his own notes.
“That being said, I don’t want to force anyone to use any technology they don’t want to,” Molloy said. “If the city needs to purchase less than seven, I’m fine with that.”
The purchase of seven iPads was approved with Bookey and Marquis voting in opposition.
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org