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11/30/2019
City delves into annual budget

By SAM ALLEN 
Daily New Staff Writer

Earlier this week, the Ketchikan City Council started reviewing a tentative $64.4 million budget filled with property tax increases and funding for a new ambulance.

The largest expense is "personnel services," which includes salaries and benefits for the nearly 150 city employees. At $23 million, "personnel services," makes up about half of the city's operating budget. The line item includes a 2% cost of living adjustment that applies to all city employees, effective Jan. 1.

Also, Jan. 1, the sales tax cap will increase from $1,000 to $2,000, which is expected to bring in an additional $540,000 in sales tax revenues. And an electric rate increase of 3.5%, passed during last year's budget process and deferred because of a diesel surcharge, is set to take effect Jan. 1.

While the city has been almost entirely on hydropower since the beginning of September, the diesel surcharge will extend for several months into the new year. The city's estimate is that the surcharge will decrease from its peak in August of $0.0647 per kilowatt hour to $0.0258 per kilowatt hour by Jan. 1. The surcharge would then progressively diminish.

The council kicked off budget deliberations with a special budget meeting Nov. 26. Four more budget meetings are expected through Dec. 16, with the next scheduled Monday.

Following these meetings, the council is required by ordinance to adopt a final spending plan by Dec. 29. At least one public hearing on the proposed budget is required before the council adopts the budget.

The second largest operating expense is "contract/purchased services." This 18% chunk of the budget goes to utilities, consultants, equipment rentals, software updates, technical services, training and travel.

The third aspect of the budget that accounts for about 14% of operating expenses is debt service. This $6.5 million is used to pay off bonds for the hospital, fire station, library, harbor, fire department equipment and other capital and infrastructure projects. As of Jan. 1, 2020 it is estimated the city will have a total debt of $79.5 million.

The budget supports establishing a long-term maintenance program for the port.

"Issuing debt to finance routine maintenance is not a sound fiscal policy. Instead, an effort should be undertaken by the city to ensure that the fees charged by the port for the use of its berthing facilities are sufficient to fund a long-term maintenance program," the budget reads.

The draft budget, as it currently stands, does not factor in any potential developmental impacts of Ward Cove.

"Due to the uncertainty of Ward Cove Dock Group development and the infancy of the City's RFP process to seek partners in the efforts to renovate its own berthing facilities, nothing has been programmed in the Port's 2020 budget to address these challenges," budget documents read.

At the council's special meeting Monday, the council reviewed the budgets for the city clerk's and city manager's office, the city finance department, the city's information technology department, Ketchikan Fire Department, Ketchikan Public Health Center and library.

Both the fire department and the police department are considering measures to increase staff.

"The past two years have been pretty brutal for us," KPD Chief Joe White told the council Monday.

White said they usually have two officers pers shift, when they should have four. He recounted a typical dayshift when officers went from one call to another, leaving little time for special projects or paperwork. White said he'd like to say that crime is decreasing, but he can't.

The department is dealing with more complex calls, in part due to increased technological use — cell phones, iPads, cybercrime, that typically take more hours to navigate, according to White.

Council Member Judy Zenge asked how many additional personnel White needed.

White said about a half dozen: four officers, one detective and another dispatcher.

He said, with the exception of the early 2000s, when the Shoreline Service Area was annexed, staffing has not increased above 1996 levels, when he began work at the department.

Amylon alluded to an ambassador type program in the works where the city would look at hiring seasonal workers to keep the peace through conflict resolution, be a welcoming and instructive presence for cruise ship passengers and issue minor violations.

Over at the city's fire department, there's an increased level of calls.

KFD ambulances transported 1,439 people last year, with 70% of those transports coming in a five- to six-month period during tourist season, according to Ketchikan Fire Department Police Chief Abner Hoage.

Those transports generated revenue of about $663,000, according to the city’s draft budget.

"We had days this summer where we had 17 calls in 24 hours," said Hoage.

Hoage also said that the department had all three ambulances out on call multiple times, and had to call for a fourth ambulance from another department.

He said that the department handled it through overtime.

Zenge asked whether the council should look at adding employees to the department.

"We're very busy and reaching a burnout point," Hoage saidz

The budget as is includes funding for a new ambulance. However, that ambulance won't be put into service.

To put it into service, it would require six people to staff, according to Hoage, not including, a couple of part-timers to fill in.

The new ambulance would help implement a refurbishment process, replacing chassis and equipment instead of buying new, according to Hoage.

The plan is to have the new ambulance sit in reserve status until a major repair is needed on another ambulance.

On Monday the council is expected to begin to weave its way through the remaining city departments: museum, civic center, tourism and economic development, engineering, cemetery, streets, garage, maintenance, solid waste, wastewater, port and harbors.

The meeting is open to the public and there is time for citizens' comments at the start of the meeting.  

Still ahead is review of the Ketchikan Public Utilities Budget, which asks for $77.14 million in appropriations from the city — $15 million more than initially requested in 2019.