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Sitka’s budget: How would YOU spend $25 million?

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Mayor Mim McConnell (foreground) with Phyllis Hackett and Thor Christianson at the Assembly’s first budget work session. (KCAW photo by Ed Ronco)

The Sitka Assembly is scheduled to meet at 6 p.m. Thursday for an in-depth look at the city’s general fund. It’s a $25 million pot of money the city uses to fund its basic operations — everything from police and fire protection, to public works, to parks and recreation.

And Sitka’s mayor is looking for your input.

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About a month ago, the Sitka Assembly and the Sitka School Board sat down in a room together to go over the school district’s budget. They didn’t make a whole lot of news — the same conversations they have every year about how times are tough, and both their budgets are tight, and they’ll need to work together to find solutions.

But afterward, in the hallway, Mayor Mim McConnell was talking about all the decisions the city has to make in the months ahead.

“I want to hear from people,” she said. “I really do. I want phone calls, I want e-mails. I want to know what is the most important part of our society that they want funded. Is it infrastructure, which includes roads, city buildings, parks. Or is it salaries? Is it employees? Schools? Harbors?”

So we took the mayor’s question out onto Lincoln Street: If you were a city with $25 million to spend, for what would you write the first check?

“I would say maintaining what we have,” Sitka resident John Gleason said. “Infrastructure. I think that would be important. Schools would be important. Not going beyond what we have.”

“Probably, a better park,” said Phillip Choi, “where you can actually play basketball, with something covering the top, like a playground, actually.”

People ended up, actually, having a lot to say. More police. Less police. More money for the schools. Downtown development. Maintenance of infrastructure. Addressing Sitka’s homelessness situation. And then there was Willow Moore. She asked to see a copy of the budget, and after about 30 seconds of looking at the numbers, she mentioned schools and long-range planning issues, like making sure we have enough money to maintain the things we’re building now when they fall apart in the future.

But she also talked about city grants to nonprofit organizations. Moore runs a nonprofit — Brave Heart Volunteers — and she says the money the city invests in those organizations helps them attract other grants, and that the outside money ripples through the Sitka economy.

“So it’s very important that the city funds the health and human service, and the arts and cultural programs, because they’re actively reaching out for those outside dollars, and bringing millions and millions of dollars into our outside community,” she said.

So we’ve told you what people think, but what about the actual budget?

READ: Former Municipal Administrator Jim Dinley’s letter presenting the budget to the Assembly (PDF).

“What I always like to tell people is that our budget is complex,” said Jay Sweeney, Sitka’s interim administrator and full-time finance director.

And indeed it is. The binder it comes in is about 400 pages thick. It includes enterprise funds, which are things like water and electricity, that customers pay fees to maintain, and internal service funds, which are things like how different city departments chip in money for technical support on their computers. But we’re going to focus on the general fund — a big pool of money the city uses for day-to-day operations. Police and fire service, paying most of its employees, parks and recreation, public works projects, stuff like that. It’s the $25 million dollars we were asking people about at the beginning of the story.

It’s tightly balanced.

“If every revenue came in exactly as projected,” Sweeney said, “and we spent every last penny right down to the nibs, we’d have $38 left.”

Still, next year’s budget, as it’s written right now, is a plan, and only a plan.

“In the past we have had years in which the budget has been exceeded, other years in which there’s been a surplus,” he said.

For the budget year we’re in now, the city is predicting a surplus. But Sweeney emphasizes that whether the city actually has one won’t be known until the last day of the fiscal year.

“That surplus is not a surplus now, today, at this moment,” he said. “It’s a projection of a possible surplus on June 30. You need to get to that date to see how everything ends up in the year.”

In other words, you might know who’s winning the ballgame, but you can’t say what the score will be until the ninth inning.

The Assembly already held two work sessions on the budget. Members have taken a quick look at the general fund and gone over enterprise and internal funds with a finer toothed comb. This upcoming hearing is all about the general fund — an in-depth look at the city’s day-to-day spending. After that, it’s two full meetings with public testimony, possible changes, and votes before the budget becomes official.

So, here’s the question again: If you were a city with $25 million to spend, for what would you write the first check? You can comment on this story below, or you can talk directly to your Assembly members. Here’s how to reach them.

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