FAIRBANKS—A crowd of over 160 people came to West Valley High School on Saturday for a town hall gathering at which most spoke against Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year.
Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Bryce Ward called the meeting to increase residents’ awareness of the impact Dunleavy’s budget cuts would have on the borough if approved by the Legislature and to hear residents’ thoughts and ideas.
The borough and school district face a combined reduction of nearly $50 million under the governor’s budget.
Public comments were taken over a period of two hours, with those opposed to Dunleavy’s plan indicating support for a state income or sales tax, a cap on the annual Alaska Permanent Fund dividend, or a combination to help fill annual budget gaps caused largely by a decline in the price of oil.
Those speaking in favor of Dunleavy’s proposal indicated they would prefer budgets cuts over increased taxes, suggested looking into the administrative pay in the school district and advocated for letting people keep their dividend checks.
“The governor’s proposed budget of course has some pretty dramatic impacts to the local community, and we wanted to be able to share with the community what we’ve learned about those impacts, what they are, and then really hear from you what we should be doing about those,” Ward said in welcoming residents.
Borough Chief of Staff Jim Williams then presented the audience with the possible impact the governor’s budget would have on the borough.
The presentation focused on four proposed aspects: reductions to K-12 school funding and elimination of the school bond debt reimbursement program, elimination of the borough’s ability to tax the oil and gas property, and elimination of the Human Services Community Matching Grants program.
Following the presentation, over 60 people came forward to comment.
People affiliated with various nonprofit groups, including the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living, Fairbanks Community Food Bank and Big Brothers Big Sisters, urged Ward to advocate against the termination of the matching grants program.
“I'm here today on behalf of the Fairbanks Community Food Bank,” said former state legislator Gene Therriault, who is on the food bank's board of directors.
A Senate subcommittee meets soon to review the section of the budget containing the matching grants program, Therriault said. He added that the food bank provides a human service and must meet statutes put in place by the Legislature to operate.
“So I would encourage you to work with your grant manager at the rural level,” Therriault said, “and would encourage you also to submit a letter of support for the funds.”
Some people in the audience had traveled from outside the borough to address statewide impacts of the budget.
Members of the Tanana Chiefs Conference, which serves about 40 villages throughout the Interior, were present and, like many others in the crowd, opposed the reduction to K-12 school funding. Jennifer Guthrie, 14, of Beaver, is a TCC youth delegate and was the first of a row of attendees to come forward on the topic. She said there are currently about 60 people in her village and nine students in her school.
“We are fighting to keep my school open and if you increase the PFD then ... my school will shut down,” said Guthrie, “and I speak for most people in schools that I’d rather have a better education than be wealthier.”
Chief Victor Joseph, president of TCC, accompanied Guthrie to the microphone.
Joseph spoke later in the town hall, addressing the widespread effects he believes the proposed cuts would have on the borough. He spoke of stalling construction efforts and the loss of jobs.
“We're looking at a project too that's going to be a $75 million construction project that we might have to stop here in Fairbanks,” he said. “That's about another 100 positions, 64 to 100 positions, of fairly high-paid positions that won't be coming to this town.”
Joseph added that the borough cannot handle the level of budget reductions it is facing in a single year.
“So for us, we believe in trying to get to a balanced budget, but we just don't believe that cutting, cutting, cutting is the point,” he said.
Many of those who testified spoke against Dunleavy’s proposed 25 percent reduction in K-12 education spending.
“I have two sons who were born and raised here, and here’s what is the most important thing in the world to me right now: And that is that my two granddaughters have a public school education in Fairbanks that is as good as the one my sons got,” said Anne Hanley, a borough resident of 43 years who received crowd applause for her statement.
Hanley said she was willing to pay a state income tax and be satisfied with a smaller dividend.
Paul Worman, one of the residents who spoke in support of the governor’s budget, has lived here since 1982 and thinks the cuts are needed. He said the Fairbanks school district is not living within its means.
“I have a business,” he said. “There are times when there’s not enough revenue. I cut things. Same thing with the state or the borough. We need to look at other ways to raise money.”
Another resident, Asa Dowdy, said he has been a resident for 50 years and that he thinks the governor's budget is good. He said it woke up people, regardless of whether people like it.
“We've had plenty of money from the oil companies. They got their share, we have our permanent fund,” he said. “Let the people have their permanent fund. They might tax us in some other way, but when they tax, we know where the money is going to because they have to justify it.”
Dowdy added the borough could implement a school tax, with room for exemptions.
He said the community needs to have new ideas and people participating in the process.
“Our government here in the borough needs to be cut. I'm sorry, but they're like a business and they take their money from us,” he said. “That's the way it is.”
Following the meeting, Ward noted that much of the conversation revolved around the permanent fund dividend and said he was pleased with the turnout.
“I thought that was a great response for a beautiful Saturday afternoon in Fairbanks, Alaska,” he said.
Ward said all of the comments from the town hall will be compiled into a report and shared with local legislators and the governor’s office.
A financial impacts survey, which will be included in the town hall report, will be available online at fnsb.us until 5 p.m. Monday. For anyone who could not attend or view the livestream, the video will be available by Monday. The full borough presentation slideshow is available at fnsb.us.
Contact staff writer Kyrie Long at 459-7572.