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3/5/2013
Tax break out; school funds in

By NICK BOWMAN

Daily News Staff Writer

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly voted against holding a sales tax holiday in 2013 after dozens of parents, students and teachers turned out to the regular Monday meeting to urge the body to provide greater funding to the Ketchikan School District.

Funding equivalent to the uncollected sales tax that would have been generated by retailers on the holiday, $50,000, will be instead appropriated to the school district from the borough’s general fund.

Assembly Member James Van Horn was absent from the meeting.

School Board Member Colleen Scanlon spoke during the meeting's public comment period to say she was "gravely concerned about the lack of importance the Ketchikan Gateway Borough has placed on education of the children of this community."

Scanlon listed the inflation, borough property tax rate and level of school funding for the past several years, saying that the borough should "fund to the cap." The state requires boroughs to fund past a certain level, but also holds a limit on local contributions.

The borough can fund between $4 million and $10 million. Last year, the borough provided $8.3 million to the school district, but sources of federal funding — the Secure Rural Schools Act and payment in lieu of taxes — likely are closed to the borough because of the automatic spending cuts at the federal level, popularly called the sequester.

A first look at the fiscal 2014 budget during the Assembly’s January policy session suggested the borough would have $7.7 million for the school distict, assuming the more than $2 million in federal funding cuts went into effect.

Assembly Member Agnes Moran, who called into the Monday meeting, argued that the Assembly wasn’t cutting the school district’s funding; it was not able to provide the same level as previous years because the federal funding probably wouldn’t be appropriated.

"Instead of passing through that entire $2.2 million cut," Moran said, "we’re holding them harmless on three-quarters of that. It’s not that we’re out-prioritizing the school district. We’ve been cut federal funds for the schools."

Frankie Urquhart challenged Assembly members to work in a district school as substitute teachers for one day, saying it would give them perspective on programs that might be cut because of smaller budgets.

"Over the past two years, the school district has had to do more for our students with less," she said. "Each year the school district has been put into the precarious position of what will have to be sacrificed due to budget constraints, yet still ensure our children receive the best education possible."

Urquhart said that the borough should dip into its reserves to increase funding for the school district.

In all, 17 people spoke to the Assembly about school district funding. Many of those attending the meeting wore green clothing, which Urquhart said symbolized funding for education.

Assembly members near the end of the meeting gave evidence that they did listen to the speakers.

Resolution 2465 would have established a sales tax holiday on condition that the Ketchikan City Council approve a similar resolution, but Assembly Member Glen Thompson moved to amend the motion.

"I move to vote this down and take the $50,000 and apply it toward school funding," he said. The sales that occurred on the 2012 holiday would have generated approximately $50,000 between the borough and the city.

At first, Borough Mayor Dave Kiffer didn’t take the move seriously, asking whether there were further comments on the main motion, but Thompson said he was actually making the amendment. Assembly Member Todd Phillips seconded.

The amendment passed 4-2, with Alan Bailey and Bill Rotecki voting no.

"This is the same as congressmen showing up and casting a vote so they can go back to constituents and lie, saying they support something when they really don’t," Rotecki said. "If you really want to support schools, let’s deal with it."

Rotecki said it was a clever move on Thompson’s part, who hasn’t supported previous sales tax holidays.

"It’s a very clever way — and I?admire you — way of getting rid of the sales tax holiday," he said. "But it has nothing to do with funding the schools. Let’s call a spade a spade."

Assembly Member Moran said she would support the motion because if the community wanted more funding for the schools, the entire community was going to have to share in the cost.

"If we truly are going to show our support for the schools, it’s going to be painful across the board," she said. "If the only reason we’re here is to scavenge money to throw at the schools independent of the cost to the community, everyone pays. Why should retailers get a break?"

The main motion — to scrap the holiday and instead appropriate $50,000 to the school district — passed 4-2 on the same lines as the amendment, with Rotecki and Bailey against.

Also on Monday, the Assembly introduced Ordinance 1658, which added jail time as a potential consequence of not cooperating with the borough’s requests for sales tax information from businesses.

Assembly members said the change would give the borough a tool to be used as a last resort for claiming taxes owed by businesses.

They stressed that the borough wouldn’t seek jail sentences for business owners who couldn’t afford to pay accumulated taxes, but only those who refused outright to cooperate with the borough.

A public hearing on the ordinance is set for March 18, the next meeting of the Assembly.