The Fairbanks North Star Borough Assembly on Thursday approved a nearly $166 million budget for another year, after amending it to keep the Mary Siah Recreation Center open for the year and solid-waste transfer sites open seven days a week. The budget also allocates $50 million for the school district.
The Assembly debated for about an hour before approving Lance Roberts’s amendment to add $374,000to the budget to keep Mary Siah open through the coming fiscal year. A dozen members of the Friends of Mary Siah, who earlier were waving signs on the street corner urging the Assembly to fix the aging rec center, broke out into applause after Kathryn Dodge announced the unanimous vote.
“The Mary Siah Rec is funded for another year,” she said.
One of Mary Siah’s friends, Kim Dunshie-Herning, says the group is encouraged by the vote.
“What we hope to do is keep it open as long as it takes to have it replaced by another facility,” Dunshie-Herning said. She hopes borough voters approve a ballot measure Mayor Karl Kassel has proposed to finance construction of a new aquatics center by selling bonds. But she’s concerned voters may not support the proposal, because of the borough’s tight fiscal situation.
“It was going to be demolished, y’know, and then we were going to be at the mercy of the voters,” she said.
Roberts says borough taxpayers have invested a lot of money into the 68-year-old rec center over the years, including an extensive renovation in the 1980s. And he and the facility’s supporters believe that with some additional maintenance, it could stay open for at least a few more years.
“I just don’t like to throw away buildings, just because they’re a little old,” he said. “Many places in the country have very old buildings that they use. And I think we can do better.”
Kassel had proposed demolishing Mary Siah as part a program to catch up on long-deferred maintenance on borough facilities. He told Assembly members he’ll let them know if engineering studies being conducted on the building reveal serious problems with its structural integrity that could jeopardize its certificate of occupancy. Surveys have suggested that parts of the building may have extensive corrosion and other damage.
“If the city inspector does pull our occupancy rating, depending on whether or not he gives us any time – we’ll keep it open as long as we possibly can,” Kassel said.
The final budget also gave the school district just over $50 million to minimize school district layoff and spending cuts. Assembly members and school board member Wendy Dominique agreed to do a better job communicating more over the level of funding the borough would provide for the district and the size of the district’s budget reserve.
“I just feel that those conversations were needed early-on,” Dominique said. “They didn’t happen. And I look forward to having those conversations early-on for next year.”
Assembly members tweaked several line items in the mayor’s proposed budget, including some involving solid waste. They turned down Shaun Tacke's proposed amendment to eliminate funding for attendants who monitor some transfer sites for dumpster-divers and vandals. And another by Christopher Quist close the borough’s 14 transfer sites and landfill on Sundays and Mondays. That would’ve saved a half-million dollars, but Roberts says it also would inconvenience people.
“People need those days at the transfer stations to be able to dump their trash,” he said, “and I don’t think that this is the right alternative, to cut that out – at least, for the weekends.”
On another issue, Roberts failed to convince members to hold the mill rate at last year’s level of 11.9, by paying it down with $5.4 million dollars from the general fund. The Assembly instead approved an amendment by Finance Committee Chairman Matt Cooper to boost funding or facilities maintenance with any general fund balance money left over after the annual contributing to the budget reserve. Next year, that’ll add about $2 million to the maintenance budget.