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By ANDREW SHEELER
Daily News Staff Writer
The Ketchikan City Council has concluded its first week of 2013 budget talks. The Council met Monday and Wednesday to comb through the budgets of city departments, page by page.
The Council has so far reviewed departmental budgets for the offices of the mayor, Council, city clerk, city manager, finance and information technology. They also have gone through the budgets of the Ketchikan Fire Department, Ketchikan Police Department, the city library and museum, the Ted Ferry Civic Center, the Department of Public Health and the tourism and economic development office. By the end of their final meeting of the week, Wednesday, the Council also had reviewed the engineering cemetery, streets, garage and warehouse and building maintenance divisions of the city’s Public Works Department.
City Manager Karl Amylon stressed Thursday that nothing is "cast in stone" until the Council makes the final budget vote.
Before the Council launched into discussion Monday, Amylon made a brief presentation.
"From the get-go, we decided we were going to suggest a status quo budget," Amylon said. The primary assumption of the 2013 budget, Amylon said, was that there would be no cuts in services or personnel. But to prevent the city’s financial reserves from depleting, Amylon has requested a 1-mill increase in the city property tax rate, from 6.2 to 7.2 mills.
Though some on the Council, such as Council Member Robert Sivertsen, were receptive to a mill rate increase, the Council determined to cut from the budget where it could to keep the increase as small as possible.
Some of the decisions were easy. The Council voted unanimously to cut funding for a federal lobbyist, Steve Silver. Sivertsen said "the rationale is we’re going to have a lame-duck Congress anyway." That decision saved the city $50,417, according to Amylon.
The Council also voted unanimously to reduce its membership level in the Alaska Miner’s Association from the $5,000 "Gold" level to the $500 "Sustaining" level. The reduced level means the Council can send only one member to association meetings, not five.
The Council disagreed when the subject of community agency funding levels came up. In 2012, the Council opted to grant 4 percent of city sales tax receipts to a handful of nonprofit groups, such as First City Homeless Services and the Ketchikan Senior Center. Sivertsen moved for the Council to return to its previous rate of 3.24 percent. He argued there is "less money going around.
Council Member Matt Olsen called the money a good investment in the community, while Council Member Sam Bergeron asked Sivertsen to withdraw the motion until later in the proceedings.
The Council approved the cut, 4-3. Olsen, Bergeron and Council Member Marty West voted no.
Olsen also proposed cutting the Council’s travel budget from $18,000 to $12,000, saying that was more reflective of what it was likely to spend. That motion passed 6-1, with Council Member Dick Coose voting no.
A $350,000 request from the Ketchikan Fire Department for a new fire engine raised a few eyebrows at the Monday meeting. Assistant Fire Chief John Dorman described the current engine’s status as "coming and going." Council members asked Dorman whether it would be cheaper to refurbish the existing truck, and Dorman and Amylon said no.
Council members also questioned the need for the city to pay for firefighters to receive chest X-rays every five years. The X-rays would be paid for from a $35,000 safety program. Dorman said it was standard procedure to check for lung health of firefighters "who are exposed to the byproducts of combustion" in the line of duty.
Another public safety expense at which some Council?members balked was the cost of the emergency call center. The call center, run by the police department, would cost the city nearly $1.1 million in 2013 if the funding is approved. The city-funded dispatch center covers 911 calls borough-wide, though it refers non-city crime calls to the Alaska State Troopers. Amylon said historically, it always has fallen on the city to foot the bill.
"Historically it probably wasn’t as expensive as it is today," Sivertsen said. Sivertsen recommended the Council ask the Ketchikan Gateway Borough to help with the cost.
Council Members also questioned why the dispatch center had to be fully staffed even during traditionally quiet times. Police Chief Alan Bengaard said that even during quiet times, disaster can strike. He used the Nov. 19 South Tongass fatal car crash as an example.
"The dispatch center was on fire" with phone calls, Bengaard said.
Another area of contention was a service provided by the Ketchikan Public Library. The library requested $79,584 for its adult outreach program. One of its listed goals for 2013 was to use part of that money to continue visits to the City of Saxman Senior Housing, a program which began in 2012. Sivertsen said he took issue with the fact that City of Saxman residents, unlike borough residents, do not pay into the library.
"The fact is, the city is providing a service," Sivertsen said. He introduced a motion to cancel the Saxman senior visits, which drew protest from Bergeron and West.
"We haven’t even approached Saxman" about sharing costs, West said. "I think we can be more neighborly than that. I really do." Bergeron described the library as the city’s "one shining beacon."
When Coose suggested the city find a way to track Saxman resident library usage and request the City of Saxman share the cost, Bergeron demurred, calling such tracking "a little on the Big Brother side." At Coose’ suggestion, Sivertsen withdrew the motion.
The Council will resume budget talks 7 p.m. Monday in chambers.?There will be time for public comment at the start of the meeting.