I sent the following “letter to the editor” to our new Driftwood Dispatch newspaper – published twice a month:
Proposition 1 comes before the voters at our local October 21st election. As a member of the Assembly, I cannot lobby either for or against the Proposition, but I wanted to fill you in on why we have the Proposition in the first place…
Our community is struggling. Yakutat is one of only three Census Districts in Alaska to have a declining population between 2010 and 2013. Our population has been on a downward trend for decades. (http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/02/02282.html)
Although this is an incredible place to live, many – especially young families – are finding it harder and harder to remain here. The cost of living is prohibitively high and well-paying jobs are dwindling. Although Yakutat has done an amazing job of acquiring grants through the years, helping to sustain our community, those grant sources are drying up.
If you take the Borough’s General Fund budget as passed by the assembly and divide that by the number of residents, we are spending over $4,000 per human being on local governmental services – NOT INCLUDING any of the Enterprise Funds like power and water utilities, dock services, or the school. For my small family of four, that equates to nearly $17,000 just for local General Fund-financed services. General Fund services are: Administration (the city office and staff), Public Works (but not including water and sewer, or Yakutat Power), Landfill*, Regular Road Maintenance, Snow Removal, Parks and Recreation, Planning and Zoning (not including the grant projects), Police, Fire, EMS and Community Services**.
The average per capita household income for Yakutat is just under $40,000, yet we spend $17,000 per my household of four for local government expenses. Add water/sewer/power to this and Yakutat’s per capita expenses reach $9,000 per living human and $36,000 for my family. What money is left to pay our personal bills, like housing, food and clothing?
In other words, Yakutat’s municipal expenses are unsustainable. The math just doesn’t work. We are seeing a declining population in large part because it is so expensive to live here, which causes more people to move out, thus fewer people now share the expense of providing services, which drives more people out and even fewer people share the expenses… A death spiral ensues.
Over the past year, the Borough Assembly has been having a VERY heated debate about the future of Yakutat. It comes down to whether we will even have a future. Are we already in the death spiral, or can we still pull ourselves back in time? I honestly don’t know. All we can do is look at where we are and make the best decisions we can for our families and for our future. We have hard choices before us. Painful choices have to be made. NOT making the difficult decisions IS making the decision to watch Yakutat collapse.
Well, isn’t this turning out to be a happy-sunny little letter? That’s the set-up, so you know really where we are along our shared road to the future. This has been a miserably difficult process to go through and we are still a long way from seeing any positive results. I’m still optimistic though. No, really!
I have been pushing for some dramatic cuts to expenses. These cuts wouldn’t make living in Yakutat less expensive in the short-term, but would free up some money to save some of our crumbling infrastructure. Maintenance on our utility distribution system has been deferred to the point that we may lose our ability to provide those services. We must find that money somewhere. It can either come from raising revenue (tax increases that make living here even more expensive), or by cutting expenses elsewhere in the government. Cutting expenses translates primarily to reducing the number of people who provide our city services – throwing our friends, neighbors, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles out of work. Those are really the only two significant choices we have and neither of them are all that great. Serving on the Assembly is just a hoot, isn’t it?
In our 2015 budget, the Assembly took steps to end the “hiding” of expenses in other departments. Specifically, the General Fund had been bailing out the Water/Sewer utility with sales tax and property tax revenue instead of having the actual utility user pay their expense. But… we also reduced the property tax mil rate to compensate for the increase in utility rates. In other words, no increase in revenue by double taxing residents. Increase one, decrease the other and stop hiding the cost of the utility services in the General Fund. Not everyone is happy about the rate increase, but this was the most logical and fair way to get Water/Sewer out of the red without making it more expensive to live here.
Sales tax increases have been a little more problematic in the past. When I took my place on the Assembly, I was told that the Assembly could only increase the sales tax for one year at a time without requiring a public vote. The prior Assembly increased the sales tax to 5% for one year to fund the increased cost of operating the dump in compliance with DEC and EPA requirements*. As much as I loved the old “Yakutat Drive-In”, we cannot go back to the open bear feeding pit without facing extreme fines. The rate increase expired June 30th and the Assembly was asked to renew it for another year. I objected, if doing repeated single-year Ordinances was a way to avoid the public vote.
Then, our city attorney advised us that the Assembly can raise the sales tax on their own in conflict with what we had been told by the Manager. We were also told that the public was allowed a vote for the 3% to 4% increase to fund $125,000 in sales tax revenue earmarked for the clinic**. Some on the Assembly insisted that we have the public vote on the sales tax anyway, as a way for the public to be directly involved in how they want us to proceed. That is why we have this Proposition 1 on the October ballot.
To me, this is an opportunity for the people of Yakutat to help the Assembly solve the problems I outlined earlier – do we have draconian cuts in departments across the board to enable us to fund the services we need, or do we raise the cost of living through a permanent sales tax increase? Both options have consequences.
* Landfill operating budget for fiscal year 2015 is $169,312.00
** Community Services budget for fiscal year 2015 is $151,000.00 with $125,000 given to the Yakutat Community Health Center, $10,000 for Tourism Enhancement, $12,000 for “Lights” and $4,000 for S.E. Nutrition