The Clausen Museum’s fiske sculpture (Joe Viechnicki/KFSK)

Petersburg’s borough assembly is back on track to pass a budget for the fiscal year that starts in July, after voting down the spending plan a week before. Assembly members this week voted down full funding for the museum and expanded hours at the public library but learned more about possible one-time payments for department heads.

Assembly member Brandi Marohl was seeking more information on payments for the employees who oversee various borough department. She was unsuccessful in seeking to remove that spending and voted against the budget earlier in the month.

Borough manager Steve Giesbrecht responded that a $2000 amount is a place holder for a one-time payment for the department managers.

“The reason we would do that would be so that it’s not cumulative,” Giesbrecht said. “It’s a one-time payment kinda thing, so that next year if we can’t do anything, we’re not adding on to a budget problem. Did put in 2000 dollars each. That’s clearly not real accurate because when we do our comparisons and we’re pretty much done with that, not every department head is out of whack. Some are actually more out of whack than others.”

The borough compares salaries and benefits for both managers and employees with similar jobs in other Alaska communities, some smaller and some larger than Petersburg. Giesbrecht told the assembly that since he came to the borough in 2011 management has adjusted salaries to try and keep pace.

“Our department heads continue to fall behind even with the raises they’ve gotten, in some cases substantially, substantial raises,” Giesbrecht said. “We’re falling behind what other cities are paying for those similar positions.”

The borough does not pay automatic cost of living increases from year to year. Department heads received four percent raises last year and a bonus payment the year before. Assembly member Jeff Meucci thought any bonuses should only be merit based for the managers and not automatic. “And I think they should be feeling the same pinch that the rest of the employees and the community are feeling with our contract negotiations,” Meucci said. “I don’t want to have to be saying that we’re giving departments a blank, whatever $2000 unless it’s a merit based increase based on the job performance. Cause it’s not going to do anything for morale for PMEA or IBEW if we give the department heads a bump and we’re not being consistent with the people on the ground who the community is seeing every day.”

The PMEA is the Petersburg Municipal Employees Association and the IBEW is the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the two union bargaining units of borough employees. Both have voted down tentative agreements for new contracts this year. Department heads are not represented by a union. The assembly did not move to strike that bonus money for those managers from the budget.

They did take votes on changing some spending. Meucci wanted to vote on budgeting to open the public library for four hours on Sundays. “I think it’s a big part of the community, it’s a big part of the visitor industry in town,” he said. “And I keep hearing from the families in town that a short time on Sunday afternoon, they’d appreciate it.”

Librarian Tara Alcock reported that change would require the creation of two new part time employee positions and extra janitorial and utility costs would mean an additional 40-thousand dollars in spending in that department, roughly a 10 percent increase. Meucci found no other supporters on the assembly for making that amendment.

Jeigh Stanton Gregor pointed to the five percent cut for community service organizations the Clausen Museum, KFSK and Mt View Manor food service. “If I had my way, none of them would take any reduction,” he said, adding, “they’re all very critical services. That said, five percent was pretty even-handed. I feel like I’d be remiss to take from one to fund the other. It’d feel a little too discriminatory for my blood at this point. And so I can’t support it at this time despite my wanting for that at the library.”

In another proposed change, Meucci also moved to restore the five percent cut for the museum, restoring 21-hundred dollars and using money from the borough’s bed tax to make up the difference. Assembly members were split on that proposal but it failed on a 3-4 vote with only Meucci, Eric Castro and Brandi Marohl voting to restore that money.

After those votes, a full-rostered assembly voted unanimously to pass the unchanged budget in first reading. It needs two more approvals before becoming the spending plan for next year. And it can still be changed during this process or anytime during the year with three readings of a supplemental budget ordinance.
Spending in most general fund departments would increase with this budget proposal, with the exceptions of information technology, attorney costs, public works and parks and recreation. The spending plan increases the general fund subsidy to the elderly housing assisted living facility from 80,000 dollars this year to 150,000 dollars next year, or just over nine percent of that facility’s budget. It also assumes a nine percent increase in harbor fees and other already planned utility rate increases. The harbor’s portion of state raw fish tax money would drop to 300,000 dollars, from 550,000 in the current year.

The assembly also gave itself some homework over the summer – to go through a list of community ideas on new revenue, cutting spending or other ways to improve the borough. Each assembly member will choose three ideas they’d like to find out more about and the group will revisit the topic in early September.