Mat-Su budget keeps tax levy low, adds emergency responders

Zaz Hollander

PALMER -- The Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly on Thursday night unanimously approved a roughly $404.5 million budget that adds seven full-time paramedic positions and increases funds for Mat-Su district schools yet lowers the taxing rate compared to last year.

The budget also includes money to seek federal buyouts of flood-prone land along the Matanuska River, potential funding for preschool programs in rural areas and support for recreational improvements around the borough, including Hatcher Pass, Jim Creek and Bodenburg Butte.

The Assembly approved the document after three days of public hearings in Palmer, Wasilla and Willow and just two days of deliberations over the past week.

The final product, though slim, marks an improvement over the grim financial forecast managers gave at the start of the budget cycle. Mat-Su officials trying to provide services in the fastest-growing part of Alaska fretted over diminishing state funds and the possible need to pay down a nearly $8 million shortfall at the still-foundering Port MacKenzie, among other things.

"A month ago, things didn't look very good," said Assembly member Vern Halter, an Iditarod race veteran from Willow who represents the Susitna Valley. "I feel really good about this budget cycle."

New funding sources materialized in recent weeks, including higher state revenue-sharing funds than expected, a heavy reliance on money moved from reserve funds and much lower than expected payments to the port. The Mat-Su Borough School District will also receive a one-time payment that officials say should roughly equal the district's usual request for a 3 percent annual funding increase.

Still, this is a skinny budget: Borough managers are leaving numerous vacant positions unfilled. Out of 37 new positions requested to keep up with a population nearing 100,000, only 11 were funded, officials say. Along with the seven medic positions funded through higher ambulance fees, new staff include an assessor, a land management specialist, a right-of-way acquisitions officer and a civil construction project manager.

Borough emergency services director Dennis Brodigan said Friday he also expects to add four new firefighter captains to the ranks. The Assembly approved those positions but funding was inadvertently left out of the final budget.

Residents looking at their phone bills will also see 911 fees increase from $1 to $2 per access line and wireless phone number. The fee rose from 75 cents to $1 last year and can't go higher than $2. The more than $1 million raised by the latest hike will pay for dispatchers and future consolidation of dispatch centers in Wasilla and Palmer.

Borough Mayor Larry DeVilbiss can issue vetoes on budget items. He has until May 20.

DeVilbiss on Thursday night called a veto unlikely after the Assembly kept the tax levy below 10 mills.

"I'm gonna cut you a lot of slack for coming in under 10," DeVilbiss told the Assembly. "I would like to thank you all for working together cooperatively, amicably ... somewhat noisily at times."

Despite the lower tax levy, however, an overall increase in assessed property values could make for slightly higher property tax bills.

The approved mill rate for the coming year is 9.662 mills throughout the borough, plus another .52 mills for people outside Palmer, Wasilla and Houston who also pay additional fire and road service levies. Last year's mill rate was 9.852.

The estimated average assessed home value in the Mat-Su is a little more than $217,000. The new rate equates to an average base tax payment of $2,102, compared to $2,097 last year.

Budget highlights include:

• Just more than $1.5 million to pay down shortfalls at the port, double the usual amount but far short of the nearly $8 million borough officials thought they might have to pay into an enterprise fund to maintain a solid bond rating.

• More than $215,000 for the recreation area at Jim Creek, including development for motorized uses, and more than $52,000 to pay for more parking and a trail head realignment at Bodenburg Butte.

• A combination of $72,000 for a federal grant writer and $197,000 for planning and assessment toward a Federal Emergency Management Agency property buyout from Mile 13 to Mile 15 of the Old Glenn Highway where erosion and flooding threaten homes.

• One-time funding of $60,000 for the Mat-Su Sexual Assault Response Team, administered through the City of Wasilla, and $50,000 for Youth Court.

• More than $1 million out of a school site reserve fund to pay for a roundabout and bridge over Wasilla Creek in the area of Machetanz Elementary.

• Several items for the Hatcher Pass area, including $60,000 toward marketing a ski area at Hatcher Pass, $175,000 for trail work at Government Peak Recreation Area and $150,000 for a kitchen in the chalet at the area.

• A $350,000 payment to the school district, intended to fund preschool programs.

• A total of $150,000 for parking lot upgrade and a double-vaulted toilet at the Trapper Creek Community Center, and new ball fields in Meadow Lakes.