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Next to voting, the most important public responsibility in a community is to advise elected officials in regard to the budget.
It's budget season for the Ketchikan City Council; the council's public role in the process begins in earnest Monday.
Budgeting this time around will be especially difficult because the city has depended on reserves to balance previous years' budgets. Those reserves are diminished. Jobs and services are on the line.
The 2014 proposed city budget comes in at $36.9 million. The Ketchikan Public Utilities budget at $35.1 million. Both numbers fall short of the 2013 budgets.
The proposed budgets reflect no tax or rate increases, a wise place to begin in a slower economy. Some businesses report doing well financially, while others are surviving month to month. The same is true for individuals and families. Government should reflect the situation of the public.
A key reason the city is seeing less money in its general fund is that it dedicated the raw fish tax toward capital improvements. That amounts to about $2 million in less revenue to the general fund in recent years.
Meanwhile, the city expects its debt service to increase because of the Ketchikan Medical Center project. It also is scheduled for employee pay increases. It will pay higher health insurance and workers compensation premiums. This means some employees will get raises and others might lose their jobs, with jobs being the biggest expense in most budgets.
The city still has to deal with aging infrastructure, while at the same time state legislators predict less capital spending in the upcoming legislative session.
The city might be in the position that other cities have dealt with sooner, cutting positions and not lowering rates. Or cutting positions and raising rates. That would address the city's budget problems, but it would increase those of the unemployed or marginally employed. Any solution will financially hurt someone.
The proposed budgets identify nearly 20 vulnerable positions — some occupied and some not — during the budget session.
The Council will have to answer difficult questions. For example, should it pay for a federal lobbyist when next-to-no capital funding is coming to Ketchikan out of Washington, D.C.? Should it reduce the number of government employees who attend and are reimbursed for travel to Juneau for the annual legislative lobbying trip? Is it in the same situation as the business community, being forced to reduce staff and related expenses? Maybe even services? How much can it increase rates without an economic slowdown?
The answers might be yes, or they might be no or something else. The Council will have to determine that. But the voting public should comment and lend its advice, either addressing the Council at the podium or privately. Because we're all in this together. There is only so much money; the Council will be deciding who gets it.