Petersburg’s borough assembly has put aside talks of budget cuts for the time being. The assembly Monday voted to advance a draft budget proposed by borough staff with no reductions for the school district and community service organizations. Local residents urged assembly members not to make across the board cuts. However, the borough budget won’t be finalized until later this spring.
Next year’s spending plan does not come up for official assembly approval until meetings in May and June. However, borough staff presented the assembly with a draft budget this month and asked for early direction about changes they’d like to see. Assembly members last week proposed cuts to appropriations to the school district, Petersburg mental health services and other local organizations along with borough departments. However, they fell short of the four vote majority needed to suggest those changes.
The talk of budget reductions prompted opposition from the public this week. Sue Paulsen said she opposed across the board budget reductions “We all know this is a time of transition when it comes to the city of Petersburg becoming the Petersburg borough. And there’s going to be a big change in the tax base. And there’ll no doubt be discussions about what appropriate reserves in each area ought to be. And of course I bow to you, you’ll be having these discussion it’s not going to be easy. But a general reduction in services right off the bat seems to me absolutely inappropriate at this time, not justified by an in articulated gesture to save money.”
Others who testified also sought no reduction in the borough’s one point eight million dollar contribution to the school district or payments to other community service organizations.
“And I would just like you to think long and hard and I know we have some tough planning to do as far as long term goals with the budget for the financial stability of our wonderful community,” said teacher Ginger Evens. “But just we need to take a long term plan and look. And I think when some of these cuts came out at first, it’s quite shocking when there hasn’t been mention of any kind of cuts and then all of a sudden, we’ve already been making our plans with the district, knowing personally what Ive been involved with the budget discussions that we do do long term planning and I would just ask the same of the assembly.”
Parent and coach Matt Pawuk is a graduate of Petersburg High School and encouraged the assembly to keep school funding at current levels. “You know I am immensely appreciative of the teachers that we have. I work closely with some of the teachers as a coach, things like that. They do a heck of a job. I know my sister’s on school board so I follow things a little more closely than others might. I encourage you to look at the budget and find out where we’re wasting money because I just don’t see it happening. I think everything that we put into our kids is a very good investment.”
Hospital CEO Liz Woodyard thought the borough could bring in more tax revenue. “Just like a hospital, the schools, mental health, the museum, they’re all important to bringing people to Petersburg and keeping people here. So I would support personally with more tax, to pay more tax. Because I think the services are worth it, or tobacco tax or an alcohol tax, personally I would because I feel it’s very important and I feel the taxes are pretty reasonable here.”
The borough already will be seeing more tax revenue in the upcoming year from new property and sales in the expanded municipal boundaries. Money from the state is also expected to increase. Overall the draft budget anticipates putting aside some 437,000 dollars for future purchases of land or other development.
Vice mayor Cindi Lagoudakis also noted that the borough has money saved already. “Currently we have over 20 million dollars in reserves. That money is being invested and its held in reserve for emergencies and in some places its depreciation funds that are allocated to different departments. Though it is allocated to different departments the assembly does have the ability to move that money between projects and functions if the need arose. The fund has increased over the last 3-4 years by 300,000 to 400,000 dollars every year. Now it makes sense to keep that money in reserve I’m not saying we should get rid of it but just but just to let you know that there is money available.”
Lagoudakis noted the general fund reserve is currently just under four million dollars, only a half million dollars from the maximum allowed in policy for that reserve account.
Other assembly members said they were glad to hear from the public on the issue. Here’s Jeigh Stanton Gregor. “Speaking for myself, it’s important to have these discussions now as opposed to the first week in May when we sit down to have the first official reading of this budget. Frankly speaking the last week including the meeting, was good democracy. It’s good to hear where people are at. Good to hear what’s important to members of the community. Important to hear consequences of decisions we make.”
Stanton Gregor liked an idea by Kurt Wohlhueter to hold community forums about how to address future needs. And Bob Lynn thought the borough would have to make some choices in the future and did not think people wanted to pay more taxes. “I’ll say that I had a young woman talk to me this morning, said that she was holding down two jobs in order to make ends meet and she said whatever you do she says don’t raise taxes. And I’m just saying that on the other side of the coin. And I think we do have to, we are going to have to take a look at how we are going to continue to make ends meet.”
Lynn appreciated that the school budget was on a different schedule than the borough’s budget and did not think it was the right time to make cuts to the school contribution. He and the others voted to support the staff’s draft budget which maintains the current level of funding to the school district and community service grants. The spending plan will be up for its first official vote in an ordinance before the assembly at its first meeting in May.