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Budget needs more public input: Citizen committee could scrutinize issues for assembly

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Posted: Sunday, June 24, 2012 12:01 am | Updated: 10:35 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

Community perspective

At the June 28 regular meeting, Ordinance 2012-30 to form a Citizen’s Budget Review Committee for the borough will come before the assembly. We will take public hearing first, followed by an assembly vote — that same night.

The public will have no opportunity after public hearing closes to discuss amendments during assembly debate. This process is the main reason I have come forward with this ordinance — because the single largest item that we deal with each year, the annual budget, is handled the same way.

As with all of our ordinances, there is a work session before the vote (for the budget we have one or two Saturday work sessions) — but no public testimony is solicited at these work sessions. The public is welcome to attend and they can always call, email or write their opinions, but as a matter of course — there is never any public hearing until the night of the vote and never any public hearing on amendments that are offered after public hearing is closed.

If the assembly opts to postpone the vote for a week, we have a chance to digest the public testimony, and this often changes the vote from what originated in the work session.

Outside of the public meetings, assembly members can only discuss amendments with two other assembly persons without violating the open meetings act, as adopted by the assembly.

Ordinance 2012-30 would change the budget process by soliciting public input during the year — at publicly noticed meetings — bringing issues important to the public to the assembly’s attention before the budget document is submitted by the administration. The approximately 700-page budget document is delivered two weeks before our work session starts.

We don’t have staff working for us. We don’t spend our days meeting like the Legislature does. We get a budget that has line items that are broken out by departments and divisions within those departments. We have line items for personnel and employee benefits, travel, etc. We do not get line items by function — for example, there is no line item in the Parks and Recreation Department budget that says “planting flowers in the Alaska Department of Transportation medians for Airport Way.”

Ordinance 2012-30 would place two assembly people on the committee, and then each of the other assembly people would appoint a citizen to the committee. The committee would meet at least quarterly, and it would solicit public testimony during the year about budget issues as they arise.

How much is too much? Or too little? How do we compare to other municipalities for the percentage spent on a particular department?

During budget deliberations, I researched some of these issues in regard to how much the borough spends on parks and recreation compared to nationwide averages. Good questions, and ones I envision the committee tackling in public. The committee would be required, at a minimum, to submit a written report to the assembly prior to the assembly’s first budget work session, highlighting the issues it reviewed and making recommendations that it had voted on during the year.

I believe the Flint Hills refinery layoffs, the possible Eielson Air Force Base layoffs (which could close schools on base), the inability of the governor and the Legislature to find common ground regarding trans-Alaska pipeline system throughput (a double whammy for the borough — affecting future state funding, future valuation of the pipeline and future property taxes collected by the borough) all indicate that this is not the time for a growing borough budget.

I stand by the assembly’s percentage cuts. I believe the borough should be run as efficiently as possible; I am not a department expert and I am not the mayor, who can direct his department heads to look for efficiencies, but I am soliciting the public’s input. I hope members of the public will come testify — for or against — my ordinance on June 28.

Diane Hutchison is presiding officer on the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly and a certified public accountant.

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