Cordova City Council spent a three-hour Wednesday, Dec. 2 work session embedded in the delicate task of devising a budget that would meet the community’s needs in spite of diminished revenues. City department heads joined the council to discuss a draft budget that included cuts in almost all areas.
The city is working to close a more than $1 million budget gap resulting from a withdrawal of state contribution toward school bond debt reimbursement, and an anticipated drop in raw fish tax revenue of at least 45%. In previous work sessions, the council considered unusual penny-pinching measures such as replacing imprisonment in jail with the use of ankle monitors.
“This is a goofy year, as we all know, and I certainly don’t want to put any more burden on the taxpayers of the community,” Councilman David Allison said.
Dec. 2, Finance Director Ken Fay presented a draft budget including a $900,000 withdrawal from the city’s permanent fund, a $300,000 reduction in support for Cordova Community Medical Center and a hiring freeze that would block the recruitment of one additional police officer, among other city employees. It remains unconfirmed whether the city will receive Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act funding in 2021, so such funding was not factored into the draft budget.
Though some proposed cuts were framed as temporary, such as suspending city-funded cemetery maintenance for a year, City Manager Helen Howarth warned that the conditions that created the current budget crunch may not have vanished by 2022.
“What are we going to have to grapple with in 2022?” Howarth asked. “Do we still have COVID? Do we not have any federal money? Do we still have a state that can’t provide resources that we’ve become accustomed to in our budget? As we put these together, I encourage, as [Public Works Director] Sam [Greenwood] was saying, looking at the long term… That’s the thing that keeps me up at night.”
“Pulling $900,000 out of the permanent fund has kept me up, too,” Councilman Tom Bailer quipped in response. “I’m not real in favor of that.”
Howarth requested the council commit to revisit the budget during the first quarter of 2021, by which time the city’s financial situation for the coming year will presumably have grown clearer.
The Cordova Police Department currently employs four officers, including interim Police Chief Nate Taylor, recently increased from three officers. With four officers, the department is able to provide service 20 hours per day, Taylor told the council. With a fifth officer, the police chief would be able to spend 40 hours per week on administrative duties, as opposed to splitting time between administrative work and the field work more typical of a police officer.
The draft budget presented to the council proposed an overall reduction in law enforcement funding from $1.03 million to $820,335. However, some council members questioned what the point was of funding a recent community survey on policing if the city planned to disregard the public’s requests for a better-staffed police department.
Bailer said he would support hiring a new police officer, though perhaps doing so immediately would not be feasible.
“Our police force keeps the honest thieves honest and, if they’re not out there, we will have drunk drivers, and we will have other issues going on,” Bailer said.
However, Councilwoman Anne Schaefer said that community safety relies not just on effective policing, but on good mental and physical health, which are benefited by access to facilities like the Bidarki Rec Center and Bob Korn Memorial Pool. Suggestions that the recreational center be temporarily shut down were met with resistance from Parks and Recreation Director Susie Herschleb. Bailer suggested increasing fees at the recreational center to offset the cost of keeping it open. It would be harder to convince families to move to Cordova if resources like the recreational center and the pool were done away with altogether, Councilman Jeff Guard said.
Other possible cuts were summarily dismissed. Anyone who suggested shutting down Cordova’s Ski Hill would probably be tarred and feathered, City Councilman David Glasen remarked.
The work session also offered the council an opportunity to clear up miscellaneous errors in the draft budget, such as an item funding the maintenance of the Cordova Hotel and Bar, which was demolished in December 2019. The council will continue fine-tuning the budget at a Wednesday, Dec. 9 work session.
“Any help we’ve ever got from the state, which we’ve counted on greatly since the days the oil started flowing down the pipeline, is rapidly drawing to an end, so we’re still going to have to figure out how we support ourselves and live within our means,” Guard said.