Borough mayor’s vetoes on school, tourism funding stand

The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council will have to live with less money than the assembly originally approved for fiscal year 2019.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly failed to overturn two line-item budget vetoes from Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce at a special meeting Friday. One veto eliminated $652,000 in funding for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and the other eliminated $206,000 in funding to the tourism marketing council, a Soldotna-based nonprofit that promotes tourism businesses on the peninsula. The school district had planned to use the additional funding to hire mental health and safety counselors for elementary schools in the district.

Though the majority of assembly members voted in favor of overturning the vetoes both times, at least six assembly members have to vote in favor of overrriding a veto to do so. Both votes split on the same 5-4 lines, with Assembly President Wayne Ogle and members Norm Blakeley, Kenn Carpenter and Paul Fischer voting against the override.

The assembly members didn’t have much to discuss themselves, but the public had plenty to say. Most of the approximately 3-hour meeting went to members of the public weighing in, the majority of whom testified against overriding the vetoes at the meeting.

School funding

During the final fiscal year 2019 budget meeting June 5, assembly member Hal Smalley successfully amended the budget to include another $652,000 for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. However, the assembly only approved a .2 mill rate property tax increase, not enough to support the additional spending.

In concern for the borough spending too much from its fund balance, Pierce vetoed the additional school district funding. The school district also recently received additional funding from the state, though the total amount available to spend on other things is unclear, according to a June 29 memo from Pierce to the assembly.

The district had planned to use the funding to hire mental health and safety counselors to support students in kindergarten through sixth grade. High schools already have counselors, but having mental health support at younger ages could help prevent violence in schools and enhance learning, supporters said.

Those opposed to the spending increase said the new funds would be a reoccurring annual expense and that counseling support is available elsewhere, such as counselors who accept patients on Medicaid.

“I love kids, and I really care about what they’re going through these days, but there’s no end,” said Nancy Whiting of Nikiski. “It just continues and continues. When will it stop? What’s the next program? How many programs will there be? A mental health counselor may be of help, maybe the parents aren’t available … there are other trusted adults a kid may go to. I just think we need to look past the emotional stories, look at it logically and fiscally, and can we afford the continuation of hundreds of thousands and more of dollars going to this every year?”

A number of teachers, parents and school board members offered support for the increase, saying this has long been a recognized need and is more acute now because of the increasing incidence of school shootings nationally. Some kids don’t have parents than can step up to support their kids, so it comes down to teachers and schools, some said.

Dave Jones, the assistant superintendent for the district, told the assembly that if they did not override the veto, the administration would have to go back to the district’s Board of Education and figure out how to support the program, while the assembly funding would allow them to start the hiring process sooner.

The administrators identified counselors as a way to help prevent violence in the schools directly in response to the increase in school shootings and violence in the Lower 48, he said.

“There are some that offer (child mental health counseling) out in the community, but the problem is not everybody qualifies for it or not everybody can afford it,” he said. “So then we end up recognizing the ones that haven’t been able to afford it or aren’t getting it and see the need.”

However, the assembly chose not to move forward with the funding, in part because of concerns about using too much of the borough’s fund balance. Assembly president Wayne Ogle said had the assembly chosen to approve Pierce’s proposed plan to use some of the borough’s land trust fund to support spending, he could have supported more school funding.

“Had we gotten there, we wouldn’t be having this discussion … we’d be out of here,” he said. “We’d have more money than is being requested tonight. I know that’s water over the dam, but we had a missed opportunity.”

Tourism marketing

In its FY19 budget, the assembly approved funding for three economic development agencies — the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, the Small Business Development Center and the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council. Pierce had originally proposed $100,000 for each one, which would have been a slight increase for the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District and the Small Business Development Center over the previous year’s budget but about a 67 percent cut for the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council.

Pierce said he vetoed additional funding to help keep the borough from spending out of its fund balance and because the tourism marketing council hadn’t cooperated well with the administration’s requests to help trim spending, such as switching to more digital advertising versus printing products.

Duane Bannock, the manager of the Uptown Motel in Kenai, testified against overriding the veto for the tourism marketing council. Although the Uptown Motel depends on tourism, he said he doesn’t believe the tourism marketing council provides a return on investment for businesses.

“I promise you this … in five years of zero funding, you will see no difference in tourism gross tax dollars to the Kenai Peninsula,” he said. “Because people like me will get involved. I want to be on an organization … and I want to look you in the eye and say, ‘Thank you for the cash, but we don’t need it. We’re going to do it on our own.’”

Others testified in favor of overturning the veto, both in letters to the assembly and in person. Debbie Speakman, the executive director of the Homer Chamber of Commerce, said the chamber uses its own contract with the city in conjunction with the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council’s services to extend its reach.

“By minimizing these dollars at this point, we risk the lower rates of visitors in the future,” she said. “My board is concerned that if the borough decreases their investment now, then at a later date those dollars will not be reinvested. And that’s a big issue.”

Assembly member Hal Smalley, who proposed the amendment to increase the tourism marketing council’s funding during the budget process, spoke in favor of it because reducing marketing efforts could reduce sales tax revenue to the borough if fewer tourists come. Assembly member Kelly Cooper said she supported overriding the veto for more funding this year but possibly revising the accountability measures and funding level next year, when clearer expectations could be laid out for the nonprofit.

Summer Lazenby, the executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, said the organization plans to change directions in response to the criticism and will schedule listening sessions in Homer, Seward and on the central peninsula in the fall. She said the organization understands next year’s grant will likely be in the form of a request for proposals and asked that the administration includes tourism industry input.

“We heard you, and we continue to hear you,” she said. “As time goes on, people and perspectives within organizations change, and that is okay … We’re going to listen to what tourism businesses need and want most from a marketing organization on the Kenai Peninsula, and we’re also going to work hard to improve communication with the borough administration.”

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