Contributed by Mike Dryden, Wasilla City Councilman
The last Wasilla City Council meeting was an example of the American political system at its grassroots level. Of the many items on the agenda was a proposal to ask Wasilla residents’ approval for a temporary sales tax increase to forward-fund a new police station. The ballot measure passed after hearing many citizens’ feedback about public sector spending priorities. All were passionate, and many expressed concerns about a tax increase in the slow state economy Wasilla has found itself in as an unintentional participating partner.
As most of you know, the drop in global cruel oil prices has sent the state budget into a panic. The most obvious cutback has been the reduction in the PFD checks all expected to receive last fall. When you take that amount of money out of the state’s economy, it has to show up somewhere. Whether we like the situation or not, Wasilla and all other self-sustaining Alaskan cities are feeling the pressure. The state has cut the capital budget on almost every level except for federal funds which require a small matching percentage.
The mayor and city council members traveled to Juneau during the session. In the past few years, our trip has not been to lobby for additional state funding, but just the opposite. We now are focused on keeping the state from shifting necessary infrastructure and public safety funding to the cities. Unfunded mandates are an easy solution for state and federal governments. The state cuts the funds to the borough; the borough cut funds to the city and Wasilla is at the bottom of the hill.
The City of Wasilla has picked up several roads once maintained by the state that will result in local funding in the future. With more feet of water and sewer line than ever before, our maintenance cost has risen accordingly. The roads and service lines will have to be maintained by the city without financial assistance from the state. The Mat-Su Borough faces the same situation and is in the process of adjusting. The same dilemma exists for the Mat-Su School District. If easy reductions in spending were available, local governments would make them. The reality is one person’s investment is another person expense.
The Wasilla voters will decide this October if a temporary sale tax increase for a new police station is justified. This new police station has been in the city’s long-term plan for several years with public input. One of the most heated council meetings was during the discussion of the purchase of the old Iditarod school property from the borough, the future site of the new police station. Not everyone was happy, but all had a chance to express their opinion.
The Wasilla Police Department is now the operator of the borough-wide 911 emergency system. This service is being funded jointly by the cities, borough, the Chickaloon Native Village and AST. The new operation occupies the upstairs of the present Wasilla Police Station. If in the past you have called 911 and been put on hold for another office to pickup the phone, then you know when you need help, you need it now. The new 911 dispatch system will be a vast improvement.
Times are tough, but the fiscal situation will improve. If the voters approve the increase, the new rate will start in January 2018. When the $12,000,000 goal has been reached, a construction contract RFP will be let with construction beginning in 2019. We expect the move to the new structure in 2020. The sales tax collection timeline will be adjusted as sales tax receipt warrants. After the $12,000,000 has been collected, the sales tax rate will drop to 2.5%. The additional tax revenue will be used to cover the added expense resulting from the state and borough cuts.
I should state this article is my opinion and doesn’t consist an endorsement by any other official. Next month, I will present a detailed (as much as I can at this early stage) plan for the proposed police station. During every city council meeting, you have three minutes to express your thoughts on any subject. If the North Korean missile situation animates you, we will listen. If you are upset at the state, borough, our congressional delegation or the post office, it’s your time to opine freely. We will politely listen, take your concerns to heart and respond as appropriate. You don’t have to catch a plane to be a part of your government, just show up and sign the roster. However, the city does not have a frequent flyer or a rollover policy that will extend your three minutes. Our buzzer is a nonpartisan analog timer, much to the irritation of some frequent participants.
It is my duty and a honor to serve you. Be a part of the system. Check the City of Wasilla website for times and dates for the council meetings. Come on down; the water’s fine.