Mat Su Assembly Struggles To Hold Mill Rate Steady

Few people turned out for a Matanuska Susitna Borough public hearing on the FY 2016 budget on Monday evening. But a divide is brewing between those who want to hold the mill rate steady, and those who say more services will require a nudge in property taxes.

The meeting at the Borough’s Emergency Services building in Wasilla could not compete with the sun drenched spring evening. Only six people showed up to speak, and three of them worked for the Borough. Ken Slauson, chair of the Central Fire Service Area board, bemoaned the fact that much needed emergency services and fire protection positions are not included in next year’s spending package.

“We also made a request for an additional driver operator position as a new position, and a reclassification of one of the captains to be reclassified downwards to be a driver operator. I find out last week, through the grapevine, that those positions are not going to be presented to you as the Assembly,” Slauson said.

Two other Borough emergency services workers echoed his comments. But one woman, Patricia Fisher, told the Assembly that because of the Borough’s senior property tax exemption, she’s not paying any taxes at all.

“I am now paying zero taxes. I think there is something wrong with this. I should be paying something. Maybe not the full amount, I don’t know. I would have thought that somewhere the staff would have realized that this was going to hurt you.  Mr. Moosey has said that this is going to contribute to the budget shortfall.”

A senior and disabled property tax exemption passed by the Assembly last year is costing the Borough about ten million dollars in lost revenues this year. But Assembyman Ron Arvin defended the exemption.

“And, although it is rare, individuals have lost their homes because of that. And when we took this question up, there was a detailed discussion about basing it on need. …. And I think it is more important as a society, that we have in place an opportunity for people to own their land, without the risk of the government taking it for taxes.”

Others who spoke suggested a sales tax would help boost Borough revenues. Assemblyman Jim Sykes agreed. Sykes and Assemblyman Matthew Beck had hosted an informal listening session with constituents a week earlier.

“But what people are really wanting, that I think came out of our listening session, that I think is one of the most important things that we heard, was, ‘let’s look at other revenue sources.’  And the sales tax idea seemed to be pretty popular. There wasn’t anybody who said, ‘don’t do this.'”

But the $400,722,754  spending package now on the table is likely to morph into something else before final Assembly approval.

Borough manager John Moosey says the flat mill rate cannot sustain growing expenses.

“I believe that we have worked very hard to charge as little as possible for services, and with our ongoing risks and some loss in revenue, we cannot continue to keep doing that,” Moosey said.

But Borough mayor Larry DeVilbiss has other ideas:

“I think the manager’s budget was a good place to start, but I was not implying that that is a good place to start going up.. it could go either way. But when that areawide mill rate gets over ten mils, you can be looking for red ink.”

A second public hearing is set for May 7 in Willow, and a third for Palmer next week.