City considers creative cuts

Bailer: Why give away $1M payment cards during budget crunch?

From left, Finance Director Ken Fay, City Manager Helen Howarth, City Councilman David Allison and City Councilman Tom Bailer discuss the 2021 budget at a council work session. (Nov. 18, 2020) Photo by Zachary Snowdon Smith/The Cordova Times

The city of Cordova is considering unorthodox cost-cutting measures to close a gap of over $1 million in the 2021 budget. At a Wednesday, Nov. 18 work session, city council members discussed suggestions such as temporarily eliminating paid cemetery maintenance or replacing confinement in jail with the use of ankle monitors.

The budget shortfall was created mainly by the withdrawal of state contribution toward school bond debt reimbursement, and a drop in raw fish tax revenue. The city’s goal is to close the gap without either raising taxes or eliminating entire city departments, officials said. Many of the cuts proposed would be intended as temporary, until the effects of the coronavirus pandemic have lessened. The city’s budget situation is made more challenging because this drop in revenue doesn’t coincide with a drop in expenses, as is often the case, Finance Director Ken Fay said.

“I know it’s painful and I know we’re down to bare bones in all the departments,” Councilwoman Cathy Sherman said. “But we’ve gotta do what we’ve gotta do.”

The council voiced support for some measures, such as not employing a lobbyist during the coming year, saving $50,000. Sherman suggested the council consider suspending paid cemetery maintenance during 2021 and organizing volunteer efforts as a replacement, saving $20,000.

Interim Police Chief Nate Taylor said that using ankle monitors to completely eliminate imprisonment in jail would not be a workable solution.

City Manager Helen Howarth asked the council to decide whether or not it would agree to a one-time withdrawal from the city’s permanent fund. Howarth said she anticipated that during the coming year there would be Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding available at the state and local levels to replace lost revenue. This funding could be used to replenish money withdrawn from the permanent fund, she said.

Councilman Tom Bailer suggested the council discuss temporarily shutting down some public facilities, such as the Bidarki Rec Center, which have seen less use since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think I’d rather see that than cutting staff and not doing maintenance,” Bailer said. “I’m not advocating for that, just asking the question.”

Bailer criticized the timing of the city’s $1 million pandemic stimulus, which will soon reach residents in the form of $500 “CordovaCash” gift cards that can be used at certain local businesses. Bailer suggested withdrawing some funding from the CordovaCash program so that the city would not be forced to take as much money out of its savings.

“Now we’re in a situation where we’re going to give away $1 million, and then we’re going to go to our bank account and take out $1 million,” Bailer said. “It just doesn’t make any sense to me.”

Howarth said that the goal of the CordovaCash program was not only to give money to residents, but to help strengthen the local economy by directing funds toward community businesses.

“In the most simplistic way, it does appear that all we’re doing is throwing money into the community, putting it in people’s pockets,” Howarth said. “But I will contend that we are benefiting our community at the individual level, at the business level and at the city level, in the end.”

Howarth said that she and Fay would have a revised draft budget ready for the council’s next work session.

“When I set a spending freeze, I will tell you that the departments have taken it very seriously,” Howarth said. “I had someone ask me for permission to spend 20 bucks. So, people are really aware of the problem, and I have to commend that the staff that we have here at the city for their efforts to make this all work. Everyone knows how hard it is.”