• Nonprofit funding cut to pay for EMS, police dispatchers
By Carey Restino
This year’s city budget drew tears from testifiers, expletives from the city manager and the red pen from city council as it slashed nonprofit funding in order to fund emergency service personnel in a last-minute amendment to the budget.
“This is literally my least favorite meeting of the year,” said city councilman Beauregard Burgess before he introduced an amendment cutting funding to the Pratt Museum and the Homer Foundation grants program, which awarded grants to eight nonprofits last year.
Burgess’ amendment came in response to an amendment proposed by Councilwoman Barbara Howard, who proposed cutting a $22,000 lobbying position, $20,000 to the Pratt Museum and a $19,000 allocation to the Homer Foundation’s City of Homer Grants Program in order to fund two seasonal EMTs requested by the Homer Police Chief Mark Robl. That budget amendment was voted down, but Burgess replaced it with one that took the initial $22,000 out of the general fund, citing the return the city sees from its lobbyist investment.
The Homer Foundation’s grant program last year funded programs by the Bunnell Street Arts Center, the Center for Alaskan Coastal Studies, Cook Inletkeeper, the Homer Community Food Pantry, the Homer Council on the Arts, Hospice of Homer, Kachemak Heritage Land Trust and the Kachemak Nordic Ski Club.
The council wasn’t all cuts on Monday night, however. It appropriated $35,000 for a parks and recreational needs assessment and increased the Homer Chamber of Commerce’s allocation by $10,000 to $50,000 (See related story below).
At Monday night’s meeting, the council expressed frustration with the skyrocketing costs of providing health care packages for its employees. The council had directed the city manager and staff to limit its spending on health care to $1,500 per employee, but the resulting package the city was able to provide for employees included some big increases in premiums and deductibles, especially for families.
Christine Szocinski, whose infant daughter graced the council chambers earlier in the evening, testified tearfully that when her family moved to Homer to take a position here a year ago, they didn’t realize the changes that were coming their way. Szocinski’s husband, Mike, works in public works. She said their budget won’t allow them to pay the extra premiums to have 80 percent coverage, she said, which some testified would cost their families as much as $800 per month. The city also offers a plan that covers 70 percent of costs for about half that, but both have much higher deductibles than city employees have ever had before.
“I can’t afford that,” she said. “I look at this, and it’s heartbreaking.”
The council expressed concern that the health care costs would drive some valuable employees away, a concern that was validated by testifying employee. But Burgess said the bottom line is that the costs for insurance continue to climb, and the city budget cannot continue to absorb those costs.
“We should have addressed this sooner,” Burgess said. “We are in between a rock and a hard spot.”
Wrede said he and staff worked hard to find the best plan they could under the constraints put on them by the city council and would continue to explore options, including moving insurance to the private sector or allowing employees to take their allocated funds and look for insurance on their own. City workers are self-insured, a factor that worked in their favor before, but now, with ever-increasing costs for services, is less advantageous.
“I want everybody to know that this is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do,” Wrede said. “This sucks, this really sucks.”
Wrede said the city could continue to explore options as the health insurance market continues to evolve in response to the federally mandated health insurance programs coming online in January. Burgess said, however, that as it currently stands, the city’s plan is competitive compared to what he was able to find for insurance on the open market.
The topic of reinstating a food tax came up, though several on the council said they felt they had been given a clear mandate by city residents not to increase taxes.
Howard expressed frustration at the council’s lack of action in cutting programs that don’t fall under the mandated responsibilities of the council — such as emergency services, roads and infrastructure. Burgess agreed, saying the city residents seem unwilling to fact the facts.
“They would like lots of things and they would not like to pay for them,” Burgess said. “OK, you are going to see a decline in the quality of your city services.”
City mayor Beth Wythe said the city would likely lose quality employees as a result of not remaining competitive with other communities in terms of the compensation package it offers its employees.
“I really worry about our competitiveness, but you’re going to have to cut entire programs or raise more money,” Wrede said. “Neither of those are things that I can do on my own.”
Councilman David Lewis said he would bring back an ordinance for a sales tax increase in January, and challenged all those who were opposed to the cuts the council was making in this budget to be there to support it.
“If you are not here to support it, then we will do as Barb says — we will just have to cut,” Lewis said. “It’s time to put up or shut up.”
Francie Roberts said she couldn’t support the amendments to the budget because the Pratt Museum’s funding is critical to showing support for the museum’s planned expansion.
“The Pratt Museum has a special relationship with the city,” Roberts said. “Taking $20,000 from them right now doesn’t make any sense to me.”
The vote came down to a tie with Lewis, Councilman Bryan Zak and Roberts voting against the amendment. Wythe broke the tie, voting in favor of the cuts.
“I believe we have no funds,” Wythe said. “We have to first take care of the mandates of our city.”
Milli Martin, who sits on the Pratt Museum’s board of directors, said Tuesday morning she was stunned by the news of the cut.
“When I think of what the Pratt brings to this community, it is huge and growing,” said Martin in an email. “We don’t ask the city for full support, as most museums do, but enough to see us through the year, as we are fully dependent on grants. I am heartbroken at this news.”
Museum director Diane Converse said she was also shocked by the news and said it could be very serious if the budget is approved as amended.
“That deep a cut in our core funding at a time when other grant support is also being reduced creates many challenges for us,” Converse said.
Converse said, however, that she understands the position the city is in trying to balance its budget.
“I think the core message is that if we want to enjoy arts and culture, a healthy environment, and the educational opportunities that nonprofits like the Pratt provide — all those things that feed community health and quality of life — we need to pay for them,” Converse said in an email. “I urge people to send, and keep sending, a message to the city that they value arts and culture as a part of a healthy and economically sustainable community.”
The council also moved Monday night to reallocate funds from those appropriated for overtime at the Homer Police Department to authorize the hiring of a second dispatch officer. Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said the dispatcher is the highest need the department has, though it could easily justify requests for another jail officer and police officer. He said he has lost experienced dispatchers shortly after being trained because they saw the workload they were being asked to handle and left.
“Our dispatch department is a revolving door,” Robl told the council. “They are not quitting because they aren’t getting enough money, it’s because of the tremendous amounts of overtime.”
Robl said his overtime costs are currently $64,000 over projection, and that number doesn’t even take all such expenses into account.
“We’ve been very close in the last three years to not being able to staff dispatch,” he said.
If that happened, the police department might be able to have its officers dispatched through Soldotna, but there would be no way to dispatch fire and emergency services personnel. The only alternative would be to ask Kachemak Emergency Services to cover fire and EMS calls in the city if that happened, he said.
The budget document as amended will be considered for final approval on Dec. 9.
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