Local residents, business owners and community leaders testified for about an hour Wednesday on impacts from more than one and a half billion dollars that could be cut from state spending this year. Most, but not all, spoke against spending cuts and urged legislators to come up with a different way to close the state’s budget deficit.
The borough is gathering input on Governor Dunleavy’s budget proposal to forward to state legislators and the Alaska Municipal League. Petersburg mayor Mark Jensen moderated the testimony.
“Right now this is still a moving target,” Jensen said to open the meeting. “You it’s just a proposed budget that has caused havoc around the state with people for the last couple of weeks trying to figure out how to approach changes that could be coming our way.”
The Dunleavy administration released its budget proposal February 13, aimed at following through on the governor’s campaign promises of a full permanent fund dividend check, reduced state spending and no new sources of income, or taxes. The budget proposal would end ferry service in October, make big cuts to education and health care spending and cut off some payments to municipalities like Petersburg.
Local resident Brian Lynch said there wasn’t anything in the budget proposal he liked.
“I think the proposed budget is basically an abrogation of basic functions of the state government, including education, transportation, public safety,” Lynch said.
Local resident and teacher Dan Sullivan had a long list of spending cuts he opposed.
“If this is just a strategy, a negotiation strategy to try to win cuts in other places, I think it’s really foolish and mean-spirited because a lot of people are having to do a ton of work without good solid information,” Sullivan said. “It’s costing us a ton of money across the state. I don’t have a crystal ball but my vision of should this come through or come close to being through, I can see our population declining, I see the state’s population declining, lower enrollment in the school, lower property values, higher property taxes to cover services that the state should be funding.”
Incoming elementary principal Heather Conn went to the University of Alaska, comes from a fishing family and also owns a seasonal restaurant which serves summer visitors and locals on main street.
“All the things that are being cut here are the things that we as a family and we as a community believe in,” Conn said.
A number of people testifying said they’d be willing to take a smaller permanent fund dividend check or see a state income tax instead of these cuts. And several urged the community to contact state legislators to come up with a better solution.
Sheri Wohlhueter is wife of borough assembly member Kurt Wohlhueter.
“I’m more of a proponent to have a lot smaller permanent fund check then to have these types of cuts that will just kill communities,” she said. “I mean it’s so, I think a person could sit down and just list out for a couple hours all the effects. I mean there’s a lot we don’t realize, all the little things.”
Petersburg Medical Center CEO Phil Hofstetter also mentioned the cut to the WWAMI medical education program, which has brought medical professionals to Petersburg.
Nancy Berg of Viking Travel spoke on the impact of ending ferry service.
“25 percent of our business is directly just ferry bookings and the another 25 percent is tours using the ferry,” Berg said. “And we’ve got three websites. They all have the word ferry in it. So I mean we have seven full time employees and it would definitely, taking a 50 percent cut will…you know sometimes you just think I’ve weathered all these changes in my industry and we’ve come through and sometimes you just feel like, I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to try to deal with a 50 percent cut.”
Berg also explained the end of ferry service would have a big impact on tourism in Petersburg.
Another business owner further down main street Lisa Nilsen of Love and Matter with Flowers thought it was time to end ferry service.
“Ferries do nothing for me,” Nilsen said. “I’ve been here my entire life. It’s my favorite way to travel and I am advocating for shutting it down. Get rid of it because it’s not working. Scrap it. Find a better way. What I’m not hearing much of is, other solutions than more and more money.”
Nilsen acknowledged she wasn’t on the same page as others testifying and encouraged people who were willing to give their dividend checks to the municipality
The full hour of testimony can be heard here.