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Oh, the things I've learned: Borough government has curious features

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Posted: Sunday, August 19, 2012 12:00 am | Updated: 10:35 am, Mon Jan 21, 2013.

Community perspective

My term on the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly will end this year. I will run again in a year or two. Serving on the assembly has been very educational. I have learned a great deal about local politics and would like to share some of the things I have learned:

• Allowing everyone to claim the residential tax exemption, including those who are behind on their taxes, could save taxpayers $400,000 per year. Somehow, according to the borough’s chief financial officer, this could cause financial ruin to the borough’s bond rating.

But apparently paying $22,000 per year per person for borough employee health care causes no financial problems at all.

• The borough budget has doubled in the past 10 years, and yet the population has not doubled, nor has the number of services provided by the borough.

• Synthetic grass for soccer fields is apparently a legislative priority. Not only is it a priority, but it was a $3.2 million priority. Similarly, upgrades to Birch Hill ski area were a $1.4 million priority. On the other hand, improving gas infrastructure was only a $3 million priority. Apparently people are leaving this community because of grass soccer fields, not because they can’t afford to heat their homes.

• Do not ask the voters questions we don’t want to hear the answer to, such as an advisory ballot question asking whether the borough should continue to fund a department to current-year budget levels. I was told questions like that are silliness, and without context.

• The word “investment” means to have all property owners fund events that a handful of people attend and profit from. In the private business world, I presumed that an investment made by multiple partners should have the profits returned to the investors equitably.

• It is better to raise the fees on VanTran riders by 50 percent than it is to raise fees on hockey players by 5 percent. Hockey players can spend tens of thousands of dollars on equipment, training camps and coaching, but it is our duty (a privilege, according to some) as property owners to subsidize their ice time.

• Do not concern ourselves with communities that have less than we do. We should only compare ourselves with Anchorage or communities that have something we want. It is far more important for Ester to get state money for a bike path than a village to get the money for something frivolous like indoor plumbing.

• It was better to cut the borough contribution to the local school district this year and increase the borough Parks and Recreation Department budget. My error was thinking education is more important than ski trails or hockey. I suppose the reasoning is because professional athletes make more than the average high school drop-out.

• Greed is a sin only committed by others. Wanting more money each year for the same job, regardless of surrounding economic conditions, and having one of the most generous health care plans around is only “greed” if you are a corporation. If you do not give employees raises every year, you are mistreating them. 

• There are 400 borough employees, nearly half of whom cost taxpayers more than $100,000 each per year, when including benefits, retirement and health care. 

• The median property value in the borough is $206,800, thus making their average property tax bill $2,693. It takes eight such houses to pay for the health insurance of one borough employee. It takes the property taxes of 3,267 median-value homes just to pay the health insurance bill for all 400 employees. Borough employees contribute $70 to the $1,800 per month cost of this benefit.

• The borough has one of the highest median property tax rates in the U.S. (93rd percentile), according to Tax-Rates. org (www.tax-rates.org/alaska/fairbanks_north_star_borough_property_tax).

• Everyone is entitled to cross-country ski for free at Birch Hill, similar to attending public school. If you want to snowboard, play youth football, or swim at Chena Lakes, you have to pay.

• Low income is no excuse for not paying your fair share. If you own property in the borough, you owe it money. Regardless of what the assembly decides to spend your tax dollars on, the borough will take your house if you will not, or cannot pay.

These are just a few of the fun things I learned in my last three years. I hope it will help the voters in deciding which issues are important when voting this year. Although the borough also does many things that I support and agree with, I hope getting back to better fiscal restraint and prioritization will soon be the norm.

Matt Want was elected to the Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly’s Seat A in October 2009. He manages a Mobile 1 Lube Express in Fairbanks.

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