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Maintaining a fiscally balanced approach to public service

During a finance committee meeting in late 2001, I noticed that our chief financial officer was rather upset. He told me that there was nothing in our city code nor the city’s charter that demands a balanced budget and wondered why I kept referring to this requirement. The city attorney agreed with the CFO. I grabbed our code book and went to that section of our charter, but they were both right, nothing was there. I then asked them to accompany me to the city clerk’s office where they keep election records and showed them the ballot proposition passed in 1988 by 85% of the voters mandating a balanced budget. We then theorized how it could have disappeared from our charter but it still remains a mystery. The next update of our code book restored the requirement.

The balanced budget requirement was a result of former councils passing deficit budgets and always counting on the state to cover shortages. Despite warnings by former council member Jim Hayes and myself, the practice persisted until the time finally came when we started to run out of money half way through our fiscal year forcing us to make deep cuts and layoffs, all of which could have been avoided. This was the first major fiscal related ordinance I introduced as a council member.

Secondly, some years later we established the city’s permanent fund with MUS sale proceeds. Since inception it has earned the city over $106 million to help pay for salaries, utilities, needed equipment, road repairs and building maintenance. This is $106 million in taxes we did not have to collect freeing up those funds for families and businesses to invest in our community.

The third part of the fiscal plan I hoped to see enacted happened while serving as mayor. We had an opportunity to pay off all of our bonded indebtedness freeing money used for principal and interest payments to be used for other general fund needs, but it required approval from city residents. This was achieved in October 2011 when Proposition A was passed by 76% of the voters.

During this same time, I drafted a list of all building needs we had put on hold for years. With the help of the Interior delegation and other funding sources, we added shop and warm storage space at the Public Works facility, enclosed the upper floor of the police station to give them much needed space, and restored the historic Pat Cole City Hall. We also caught up with all deferred maintenance on existing buildings. Before I left office, we successfully negotiated five labor contracts so the incoming mayor would not have to come in half-way through the bargaining process.

More recently, I applaud the city administration and especially CFO Margarita Bell for the extremely efficient manner in distributing CARES and American Rescue Plan funds to business and organizations in our community that were severely impacted by mandatory shut downs. I also applaud the police department for several dangerous incidents in recent years that they took the time and patience to deescalate. These are just a few of the many bright spots that take place daily at the city of Fairbanks.

However, we do face some serious challenges including many vacant positions in our police department and dispatch center and adding to our snow removal resources to name a few. To help solve some of these problems we need to constantly think outside the box. For example, former Police Chief Zager a few years ago put forth a proposal to use some of the money left over from vacant positions to create public service aides to help our police officers similar to other modern police departments. He stated that “Over 50% of our sworn officers’ time is spent on matters that simply do not require an officer.” The PSAs would perform some of these tasks freeing up officers for more important matters. Could this work again for us?

I believe in public service and have greatly enjoyed working with our city employees and residents over the years. I ask for your continued support and vote on Oct. 5.

Jerry Cleworth is a former city mayor and councilman, running for Seat B on the Fairbanks City Council.

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