As the reality of governor’s vetoes hit Sitka last week some wondered, what next? City staff say they budgeted in preparation for the vetoes, but other organizations that rely on state funding were left swimming, or, in some cases, not.
Shellie Dunn is the pool manager at the Mt. Edgecumbe Aquatic Center. She was at work on Monday morning when she heard word that budget vetoes were going to affect her.
“I was on deck- we were having our 6-8 in the morning lap swim, which was wonderful, and it was brought to my attention that we had been line vetoed,” she says. “At this point we cannot be open until we hear otherwise.”
The aquatic center opened to Mt. Edgecumbe students in January and to the general public in April. The pool offers morning lap swims, swimming lessons and special times for parents with small children, seniors and those with physical therapy needs to swim. And every day from 5-8, the pool is available to everyone for open swim.
“That’s the sad part is that our momentum was just picking up,” she says. “Fridays are pretty busy, we’ve gotten up to 115 (patrons) a couple of nights, but we typically range between 60 and above on our open swims.”
Dunn oversees a lead guard and around a dozen lifeguards and swim instructors. She says the pool is crucial for Mt. Edgecumbe students, some who’ve had limited access to safe, swimmable waters back home. Dunn also managed the Blatchley Pool for three years, and she says she was never able to provide all of the opportunities she wanted to for Sitkans. Now with two pools, they can work together to meet everyone’s needs.
“This pool is going to be important for the longevity of that pool, and Mt. Edgecumbe and for just, choice in our community,” she said. “Our choice is becoming limited every day and this is just another area where I feel like that’s happening and that’s a bummer.”
Several months ago, Sitka Senator Bert Stedman said the governor would have to close the pool with him in it. Now, the governor has officially vetoed $250,000 in receipt authority for the pool, which would have allowed the pool to take money and ideally turn a profit. Stedman says not so fast.
“I’m going to continue to work on seeing this project completed, but I have not intention whatsoever on stopping or slowing down until it’s done.”
Stedman says he thinks there’s a way around the governor’s veto. He says he thinks the Department of Education actually has permission to issue the receipt authority regardless.
“We’re looking into it right now, but I’m not sure the Department of Ed doesn’t already have receipt authority in a broader context to go ahead and receive funds at the gate,” he says. “When we get done with our research, and it’s kind of a holiday weekend so it’s a little slower, we’ll find out if they have blanket authority to receive that.”
If not, Stedman may keep trying to kick the can down the road as the legislature enters special session on July 8th. And the pool is just the tip of the iceberg: The governor’s vetoes are extensive, cutting $130 million in support for the University of Alaska system and half of the school bond debt reimbursement funding, to the tune of about $49 million Alaska’s cities will now have to cover. But the legislature could override some of those vetoes with 45 votes.
“I think there’s always a group that’s interested in overriding any decisions they don’t like that the governor makes,” says Stedman. “This particular budget cycle the vetoes are very extensive and I would imagine in the first five days of the session there will be some very boisterous opinions expressed about overriding the governor’s vetoes.”
Effects to Sitka’s schools haven’t been fully realized yet, but they could be devastating, according to the city’s chief administrative officer Jay Sweeney.
In an email, Sweeney said some of the cuts to the city budget were anticipated, and some they planned for didn’t happen, meaning that careful budgeting has left the city with a surplus. The budget, passed by the Sitka Assembly in June, planned for the elimination of “fish box” tax sharing, which wasn’t vetoed, so they ended up with a bit of wiggle room there, to the tune of $520,000. Sweeney said he also wouldn’t need to transfer over an additional $200,000 to cover part of what staff thought would be a full cut to school bond debt reimbursement. But “Community Assistance” was vetoed, a cut of just under $490,000 staff didn’t budget for- all in all this evened out to a $231,000 surplus in the city’s general fund.
The governor only vetoed 50 percent of the school bond debt reimbursement, so Sweeney the city can weather the storm for a bit using the balance from their sales tax debt service fund, at least in the near term to cover the difference. But he said that’s no long term solution, and for other districts that did not plan for this sweeping cut, Sweeney said cities could be forced to provide financial assistance to school districts temporarily just to keep the doors open.