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Community leaders argue for and against ballot measure in May 7 special election

Groups supporting and opposing Proposition A in Fairbanks North Star Borough’s upcoming special election gave arguments to the Greater Fairbanks Chamber of Commerce yesterday. The election, scheduled for May 7th, would allow the borough to increase the collection of tax revenue by $10 million to pay for public schools.

During Tuesday’s hour-long forum, each side made a presentation and took questions. Morgan Dulian, a parent at Pearl Creek School with the group: Golden Heart Strong, spoke in favor of Proposition A.

“In 2023, the Assembly approved a drastically reduced budget. So that budget caused the tax revenue cap to automatically decrease by 20 million.”

Dulian pointed out that even if they assembly chose to raise taxes the full $10 million dollars, the revenue cap would still be less than it was in 2022.

“Prop A course corrects the drastic cuts in 2023, still maintaining a 10 million reduction to our tax cap, and it meets the needs of our schools today. It's a careful, critical step forward.”

She was joined by Lael Oldmixon. The former chair of the Chamber’s Education committee reminded the audience that the state has primary responsibility for funding schools, but has failed to keep up with inflation. Oldmixon said it up to the borough to meet the school district’s $64.2 million budget request – which follows deep reductions, including the closure of a high school.

“Voting no is disregarding all of the hard work that the school district has already gone through to make severe cuts. It's going to mean more school closures this year. And guess what folks? It's going to increase class sizes -- we're talking 30 kids in an elementary school classroom.”

If Proposition A passes, the assembly could raise taxes on alcohol, marijuana, tobacco or property to bring in the additional revenue. If they enact the $10 million increase solely in property taxes, that translates to about 1 mil for each taxpayer, which is $100 for every $100,000 in property value. That means $200 more per year on a $200,000 property.

That’s too much for the Prop A opposition group Citizens for Transparent Government. The group’s Joshua Church, a financial advisor, said it’s not the right time to raise borough taxes.

“The last two years have been hard for many people in this community. Most of them are not in this room right now, but they will feel the burden of a tax increase.”

Church was joined by former assembly member Aaron Lojewski, who agreed that the state should be paying for education.

“We absolutely need to have a state funding formula reform, long-term to fix this funding issue. It's a major contributing factor.”

But he suggested dipping into borough reserves as a temporary solution.

“We currently have $25.8 million in the Debt Service Fund. It is just sitting there, accumulating interest on money market funds.”

Lojewski showed spreadsheets from the borough’s current budget book, and most recent audit.

“And I think this is something that has not been adequately spoken about with the community. And this slide alone may change your whole perspective on how you want to vote in this election.”

After the presentations, Mayor Bryce Ward confirmed that the Debt Service Fund could be used for education, instead of bond debt, which is about $9.3 million per year.

“The assembly could appropriate that money for another purpose. It was put there for a reason -- in the debt service fund -- to pay for the debt.”

Chief of Staff Jim Williams said in a phone interview after the forum, last year the state partially paid the borough for school debt that accumulated over several years. The schedule of payments means the bulk of the borough’s bond debt will be paid off in the next five years, and payments will shrink, with the last debt paid off in 2032.

The special election is May 7th.

Robyne began her career in public media news at KUAC, coiling cables in the TV studio and loading reel-to-reel tape machines for the radio station.