Fairbanks borough mayor sets meetings to explain funding cuts’ budget impact

Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Karl Kassel says state officials have cut funding to the borough for three straight years now, and it appears likely that’ll continue in the years ahead. The mayor said borough officials face some tough choices on how to deal with those cuts, so he’s scheduled two public meetings for Wednesday to talk about the problem – and ask borough residents what they think ought to be done about it.

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Kassel says borough officials have done all they can to lessen the impact of state funding cuts while they wait for Alaska’s elected leaders to fix the state budget that’s been hammered by sharply reduced revenues due to a free-fall in oil prices four years ago. But the mayor said solutions at the state level now seem unlikely anytime soon and he said local officials can’t put off any longer making hard decisions on how to run the borough with greatly reduced state funding.

“This isn’t a can that we can kick down the road,” Kassel said in an interview Monday “That’s what the state has been doing with their fiscal issues. And it’s getting worse as a result of that. And they’re making our situation get out of control quickly.”

Kassel cited among other things the need to catch up on some $500 million on deferred building maintenance and long-delayed road-improvement projects. A resolution approved Oct. 12 by the borough Assembly that listed high-priority capital projects includes completion of the Barnette Magnet School renovation and service-area road improvements. Kassel says state no longer provides anywhere near the amount of capital-project funding that previously paid for most of that kind of work.

“We’ve been averaging $70 million a year to our community from the state,” Kassel said. “So for the last three years, that average has dropped. It’s no longer $70 million – it’s $1.4 million.”

Kassel said those kinds of cutbacks require borough officials to use such “tools” as issuing bonds to finance projects and budget cuts and revenue increases like tax hikes.

“I’m not seeing much way around cuts,” Kassel said. “Cutting is one tool. I think we’re probably going to be needing to do that. There’s tax revenues, and I think we’re going to have to take a look at that.”

Kassel says he wants to inform borough residents about the situation and get them to weigh in on what they think ought to be done, as he and his staff start working in earnest on the coming fiscal year budget. So he’s scheduled two town hall-type meetings for noon and 6 p.m. Wednesday at the Pioneer Park Exhibit Hall. And he encourages anyone who’s interested to attend.

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Tim Ellis is a reporter at KUAC in Fairbanks.