News from Patrick Flynn

2011 budget bits, third edition

Friday, November 5, marked the Assembly’s final (we think) work session on the administration’s proposed 2011 budget.  We likely would’ve had at least one more if we hadn’t conducted the enterprise activity-specific budget meeting earlier in the week (and, of course, we may later decide to conduct another work session should circumstances so dictate).  Here’s the list of departments discussed:

  • Employee relations
  • Equal Rights Commission
  • Fire department
  • OMB
  • Mayor’s office
  • Municipal Attorney
  • Municipal Manager
  • Parks & recreation
  • Police Department
  • Public Transportation

As readers will observe in my notes we followed a different order, so here goes…

Employee relations:

Not much to say about this relatively small group, save for two minor items.  First, they’re looking at cutting the costs associated with administering the Police & Fire Retirement Trust, which is a great idea except for the part where legal representatives for said trust consider the ideas offered illegal.  We’ll see if that moves forward or not and, if so, whether litigation ensues.

Second, major contract negotiations will arise in the 2013-14 time frame and the current staff is likely insufficient to manage that process.  The question facing the department is how to address that need, either through increased staffing or adding contractors.

Equal Rights Commission:

Again, not much on this one.  One point of note; they’ve restructured the ERC staff so an investigator receives all inquiries, which apparently saves time for field investigators.

Municipal Attorney:

This department’s budget plans to control expenses in part by charging staff time to various grant programs, which seems reasonable.  They’ve hired an attorney and paralegal to work risk management matters with the expectation that in-house costs will be lower than contracting for these services.  They’d like to do the same with worker’s compensation but, thus far, have not found an attorney with the necessary skills willing to work for the salary offered.

Mayor’s office:

I’ve read my budget book several times and the titles in the mayor’s budget often don’t seem to match those of the people who work for the mayor.  We asked for clarification on that front (who goes with which position?) and, in the meantime, noted a small reduction in that department’s budget.  The only other item of interest is a cut to the Covenant House Youth Reception Center (where cops take kids with no other place to go) grant from $50k to $40k.  Covenant House was told they can compete for additional community grants administered by the Municipal Manager’s office – a faint hope, given that funds for said grants are slated for a 30% reduction (more on that later).

Office of Management & Budget:

Another small department that’ll “save” a few bucks by charging staff time to a capital project, thus reducing operating budget costs.  They’ve decided to shoot for receipt of a Government Finance Officers Association “Distinguished Budget Presentation Award” by 2012 which, if achieved, would be a good thing in that it would indicate we’re doing a better job keeping folks informed about budget matters.  (FYI – MOA’s Comprehensive Annual Financial Report has already achieved a similar GFOA distinction.)

Municipal Manager:

This department includes Emergency Management, Risk Management, Safety and Transportation Inspection (taxicab regulation), while overseeing most of the remainder of the city’s bureaucracy.  A couple issues are worth mentioning in this proposed budget:

  • They plan to set up some sort of system where complaints (conflicts) logged with the city are either resolved or set up with a resolution process within 72 hours.  It was unclear to me which complaints would be subject to this metric (calls to the Manager’s or Mayor’s office, obviously, but what about calls to other city agencies?).
  • While the department’s budget is slated to drop from $21.19 million to $20.64 million, or 2.6%, the community & arts grants are combined and cut from $530k to $370k, or more than 30%.  I’ll have to check my notes, but I’m pretty sure the decrease, $160k, is roughly equivalent to the entire arts grant line item for 2010.  I know it’s impolitic to speculate, but I can’t help imagining a pious speech where we’re told that sure, arts funding was eviscerated, but helping kids (at a decreased funding level) is more important than some opera (even though I’m not an opera-goer).  And that might be true, if not for the fact that some of those kids’ parents have jobs related to the $45 million arts and arts-related (e.g. restaurant) industries in our town (read more here), and those small grants play a surprisingly important role in leveraging other funds.  I guess I shouldn’t be surprised – the administration tried to obliterate both line items last year so why would I expect them to do anything but finish the job this year?  After all, it’s easier to cut a non-profit’s budget than your own.

Public Transportation:

The potential good news about the aforementioned reduction in jobs that might be accomplished by reduced grants to the non-profit community is that, perhaps, the folks who can no longer get to work due to proposed bus service cuts may not have jobs to go to anyway.  That’s right, despite the fact that our public transit system is already anemic the administration’s plan would cut a route to Mountain View (where potential riders are periodically left at bus stops due to a lack of space on buses), eliminate some peak-hour trips on three routes and eliminate early-morning and late-evening trips on five routes.

Don’t forget, of course, planned fare increases for virtually everyone except the single-fare rider (most passengers use monthly passes, proposed to increase by 10%) coupled with reductions to AnchorRIDES service. Suffice it to say, I was not the only voice of discontent when this budget plan was presented.

Parks & Recreation:

Most Assembly members offered praise to John Rodda, the P&R Director who, despite diminished resources, has managed to keep facilities clean, open and running in part by deploying formerly centralized staff to locations throughout the city.  And, thanks to the Anchorage Parks Foundation, we’re seeing a lot of positive capital improvements and major maintenance for those facilities.

Good news aside, pool fans will likely express disappointment at the proposed elimination of morning lap swim at East and Service pools, the latter of which would also endure a summer closure so lifeguards could be deployed to more popular area lakes.  And I’ve already heard concerns about a planned 7.7% reduction ($40,866) to the operating grants for the Mountain View Recreation Center (home of the Boys & Girls Club) and the Northeast Community Center.

Police department:

When originally formulated the Police department proposed 2011 budget anticipated deleting 10 unfilled positions, shifting four positions from operating funds to grant support and eliminating eight others, hopefully – if that’s the right term – through attrition (e.g. retirement).  In the intervening couple months five more cops have left and there’s some optimism (?) that the remaining three positions slated for elimination will not require layoffs as at least that many more police will leave the department.

In order to maintain an on-the-street presence patrol officers’ ranks will be bolstered by shifting two traffic officers and eight detectives into patrol, though it wasn’t entirely clear what sort of detectives would be shifted (not sexual assault, we were assured).  Other changes include more sergeants and coordinating the shifts of sergeants and patrol officers so they work more cohesively, and in the same neighborhoods.

Finally, the department believes they saved enough in 2010 overtime that they’ll be able to use leftover funds to run an academy in 2011, thereby filling positions left vacant by impending retirements beyond those needed to meet their budget goals.  As I read it that academy isn’t actually in the current budget proposal, rather it would be added as part of our first quarter budget amendments.

Fire department:

You’ve likely heard the proposed budget would mothball the two pieces of equipment used the least during the past two years, Ladder Truck 11 in Eagle River and Engine 10 in Rabbit Creek.  This generated consternation both from firefighters and area residents who, among other things, have expressed concerns about how these changes might affect ISO ratings which, in turn, affect insurance rates.  To explain a bit, a better ISO rating generally results in lower homeowners insurance costs as insurers are less likely to pay large claims due to the efficacy of a local fire department’s ability to contain fire damage.

Of particular interest to me was the fact that eliminating the engine at Rabbit Creek would leave just a tender at that station.  Tenders are essentially tank and hose trucks that carry water to locations lacking hydrant service, manned by just one firefighter.  Before I could even ask the question AFD’s senior managers explained they were trying to figure out how to avoid leaving a lone firefighter at Rabbit Creek.

And, despite continued attrition, once again no firefighter academy is planned for 2011.  AFD managers again mentioned their desire to use lateral transfers (educated, credentialed firefighters from other jurisdictions) to fill vacancies.  I noted we’ve been “trying” to accomplish that for over a year and nothing’s happened.  In response I received an executive summary of their “Recruitment Strategy” that explains training lateral transfers costs about one-third the amount necessary to train new hires (minus recruit labor) but no details on whether this strategy can or has worked anywhere else.

Next steps:

So that’s it for review of the administration’s 2011 budget proposal.  As readers will note, it leaves a lot of service holes despite increased fees and property taxes.  The Assembly has public hearings slated for November 9 & 23, with amendments (informally) due by November 29.  We’re supposed to discuss those amendments at a December 3 work session and act, or not, on a final budget at our December 7 meeting.  I’ve got a long list of items that various neighbors are concerned about, and any additional ideas are welcome!



This contribution was made on Saturday, 06. November 2010 at 15:46 and was published under the category Fiscal matters. You can follow comments on this entry through the RSS-Feed.

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  1. “The Forgotten Man: A new history of the Great Depression” by Amity Shlaes details how 80 per cent of the population are largely forgotten by the government except for a source of votes and revenue.

    We pay and pay and pay and then pay some more. We are the people that largely don’t need day to day services from the government except for basic infrastructure, police and fire.
    We pay for these services through taxes and the more money and property a person has, the more tax. I deal with the government a lot. It almost always is, not what is the government doing for me, but rather, fill out this form so that the government will know how much to assess me. The government also makes a lot of mistakes on their forms allowing me the opportunity to revisit the forms.
    I often say, at the end of my life I can’t buy one more second of time which is why I am opposed to some of the these fines and fees. They don’t generate very much money for the Municipality but they consume my time.
    (The following is keyed to the green list handed out at the first budget work session)
    Line 1 The first on the list is registration of alarm systems. As a whole it generates very little money, there is no way to adequately insure all alarms will be registered so it is not fair to all and it will take time to register the alarm systems. A lot of alarms today do not report to a local central station but report to an outside station or email or they call the owner. If you rely on “false” alarms to accumulate the information on who to access you will spend a huge amount of money to accomplish very little. Also, the alarm may be the only contact a citizen has with local police while a lot of people who do not have an alarm system nor pays any taxes may have contact daily. Don’t I deserve contact once in a while for my tax contributions.

    Line 31 & 32 Taxes or fees need to be fair. When I first became concerned about the local business personal property tax and the inequities I was told in this chamber by the then mayor that people who filled out the form were in the system but the Muni did not go looking for those who did not voluntarily comply. Marty McGee has fixed that but it was a struggle and there are still those that have millions of dollars worth of inventory and business property in Anchorage that do not pay business personal property taxes. Why do I bring this up? Assembly Person Starr brought up that there were 600 aircraft at Birchwood yet only 100 pay the Aircraft Fee. What is fair about that? If you can’t assess every aircraft you should assess none.
    Line 35 Increasing the fee for automobiles is disturbing. People that own automobiles pay many, many ways while an attorney friend who feels it his environmental duty to take the bus pays very little for his transportation. And he complains mightily because we only subsidize his transportation 3 to 1.
    Line 62/63/64 Snow storage is a huge obstacle in Anchorage. The new title 21 is dealing with it and snow storage sites are disappearing. For years there has been alternatives to snow storage but unions and the crowd that says, “that ain’t the way granddad did it” have been fighting the technology of snow melting. Now we have fees suggested which alludes to the systems being allowed but the fees are punitive. I would think that you would pay a reward for a business that would go to the expense of solving a municipal problem rather than trying to stop them. The era of trucking snow, with diesel trucks, all over Anchorage rather than using natural gas and available storm sewers to get rid of the filtered water must come to an end.
    Line 79 The backflow assembly test, depending on the type of system, is a joke. I spend hours each year so that some 18 year old can come out and say, “oh, that is one of those sealed ones, looks good to me, that will be $200.00.This is protectionism for one industry that costs Anchorage a lot of money with very little benefit.
    Line 71 Water heaters installed improperly are very dangerous. You are adding fees and making it more expensive if you hire a plumber to install a new water heater. If Joe, the private individual, installs the water heater himself and burns his house down because it is too expensive to hire a plumber and pay the city fee who is at fault. There should be a procedure at the point of sale to insure a qualified person installs the hot water heater so it is installed properly. There should only be a fee when people that are not plumbers install the water heater so an inspector can make sure it is installed properly and will not burn the house down.
    Line 13-24 Fire department inspections are accomplished in multiple rental units and businesses. A business is inspected by Osha, the fire department, workman’s comp provider and the insurance provider. The inspections are substantially the same. The business is inspected to death but almost all the fires and damage happen in residential.
    In general it is apparent that this list is developed with revenue in mind and not the well being of the public. I endorse the cost causer being the cost payer but that is hard because those that cause most of the cost don’t have any money so ways need to be invented to separate money from those that have it. This list, for the most part shows that some in government have a good imagination.
    When looking at any item in the proposed list of fee additions or increases, or at any item in the budget, ask yourself, “Is this the role of government.”
    Tom McGrath

    Comment: Tom McGrath – 10. November 2010 @ 2:56 pm

  2. I think there are other solutions than closing Engine 10 and Truck 11 that should be explored. Leaving Eagle River with only an engine is not good and leaving the upper hillside with just a water tender (1 person) is also not adequate. Any layoffs at this point, is not sound practice as those firefighters will be picked up elsewhere and AFD will loose a significant financial investment in the employee. A delay in opening medic 7 is also not good given the demonstrated need for additional transport units. Eliminating units due to low call volume does not does not always equal adequate emergency services coverage for all taxpayers.

    Comment: michelle Weston – 18. November 2010 @ 6:20 pm

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