CBJ Assembly hears school, capital projects budget presentations

Juneau school board and district administrators presented next year’s proposed budget to the CBJ Assembly Finance Committee last night (Wednesday).

Board President Sally Saddler called it a “precariously balanced” spending plan that cuts $5.8-million dollars from this year’s budget. That includes 65 positions, ranging from school nurses to library assistants to middle and high school support staff.

Enrollment in Juneau schools has been on a steady decline for the past decade – dipping under 5,000 students for the past two years, where it is expected to stay. But Saddler says operating expenses continue to rise, while state and federal funding have gone down.

“We believe what you have before you is our best effort to craft a budget that will enable us to continue to focus on student performance and student achievement,” Saddler said. “But know that we will be doing things differently. It’s not business as usual. We’ve tightened our belt. We’ve made a lot of efficiencies, changes to improve our performance. But there’s no fat to cut. We are definitely cutting the bone at this time.”

Much depends on whether state lawmakers decide to increase the base student allocation. That’s the per pupil amount the state doles out to every district in Alaska. Last year lawmakers did a one-time increase to the BSA. Saddler says she’s not optimistic about another one, let alone a multi-year increase as proposed in the state Senate.

“If I had been before you two months ago, I might have been more optimistic that we could expect a BSA increase,” said Saddler. “At this point, I think I will be relieved if we get one-time funding to replace the one-time funding that we’re losing this year.”

If a BSA increase does happen, Assistant Superintendent Laury Scandling says funding will be restored for some positions and programs.

“So the first add back are 3.5 cultural paraeducators, paid for, again, general fund dollars. Our second add back right there, is elementary specialists, the third add back would be not to raise the PTR by a half, etc,” said Scandling.

The PTR Scandling mentioned, stands for Pupil-Teacher ratio, which will increase at most schools in the district without an increase in revenue.

The district’s presentation lasted about 15 minutes.

The Assembly will decide at its April 23rd regular meeting how much the city will contribute to the district’s budget. In order to meet federal guidelines designed to avoid disparity between districts, the state caps the amount local communities can contribute to schools. In Juneau, the Assembly has traditionally funded the maximum amount allowed under that cap.

Capital projects list OK’d for Assembly agenda

The Assembly Finance Committee also heard from Engineering Director Rorie Watt last night (Wednesday) with a review of capital projects in next year’s proposed budget, as well as an update of the city’s six-year Capital Improvement Program.

Mayor Bruce Botelho commented on the long-term plan, noting it includes a lot of projects in Fiscal Year 2014. Botelho suggested distributing the projects more evenly from year-to-year.

“I simply flag that, and it may be something the manager might want to review,” Botelho said.

Projects included in next year’s capital project spending plan range from borough-wide water and sewer improvements, to airport terminal renovations, to maintenance of city buildings, parks and other facilities.

About $16-million dollars in city sales tax revenue has been earmarked to pay for nearly 30 projects. Five of those are funded by the voter-approved temporary one-percent sales tax, which is due to expire at the end of next fiscal year.

Six projects are funded by the city’s water and wastewater utility funds.

Twelve projects totaling nearly $21.4-million dollars are on the assembly’s wish list, meaning they are dependent on state and federal assistance or grants.

Likewise, the city-owned Bartlett Regional Hospital and Juneau Airport are seeking grants to pay for projects totaling about $20-million and $54-million dollars respectively.

The capital improvement projects lists will appear on the agenda at the next regular Assembly meeting.

Questions about Marine Passenger Fees

Juneau’s capital improvement list for next year includes about $7.8-million dollars in projects funded by local and state marine passenger and port development fees.

The U.S. Constitution’s tonnage clause and other federal laws limit how revenue from the fees can be spent. It must be relevant to the passengers who pay the fee, or enhance the safety and efficiency of cruise ship commerce. So every year the city manager comes up with a list of projects and a justification for each item.

This year’s list includes about half a million dollars for the private Franklin and AJ Juneau docks. Assembly members Jesse Kiehl and Mary Becker questioned why the city would fund a retaining wall and information kiosk at Franklin Dock.

Mayor Bruce Botelho responded that the Assembly has often viewed Juneau’s waterfront as “an organic whole.”

“And to the extent that we have a concern about free flow of passengers, their safety on the waterfront, and frankly also the appearance of the waterfront, there is justification to provide support for projects that meet threshold tests, whether they come from a private proposal or one from the city,” Botelho said.

But Kiehl said he wanted a better explanation of where the city manager’s office draws the line when spending public money on private projects.

“There are businesses, retail businesses, and certainly other businesses around town that serve cruise ship passengers, and we don’t invest fee dollars in their basic, rudimentary infrastructure,” Kiehl said. “So, I would appreciate knowing more about what sort of analysis we do on when we’re going to help somebody build the basics of the business and when we’re going to serve the general interest of the port.”

Botelho noted that this question comes up every year when the Assembly approves spending marine passenger fees. He suggested the topic be added to a future Committee of the Whole meeting.

The Finance Committee will continue hearing presentations on the city’s proposed biennial budget through the rest of this month and into May.

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