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Council Spars Over Budget Priorities For City And State

Laura Kraegel

City officials are ready to draft Unalaska’s budget for fiscal year 2018. But after a veto by Mayor Frank Kelty at Tuesday's City Council meeting, they’re going to have to wait.

Kelty hit pause on budget planning when he struck down a resolution that prioritized adding staff at the Department of Public Safety over hiring a full-time building inspector.

The dispute comes down limited funds. The city has proposed adding three positions at Public Safety, but officials have also called for an inspector and a grant writer. Unalaska can’t afford it all.

Councilor Yudelka Leclere said she’d rather invest in Public Safety, which has been shorthanded for years.

“Public Safety is where we’re hurting," she said. "Instead of creating two new positions, our immediate need is public safety officers. We’re not just talking about our safety or theirs. We’re talking about the safety of our community members.”

After a lengthy debate, the council unanimously voted to budget for two new officers and a paid fire captain. Kelty overrode the decision, insisting Unalaska needs an inspector to enforce city ordinances.

“This is something we need to bring us into the 21st century," he said. "I don’t know how many times the city manager has told me he doesn’t have the staff to look into nuisance complaints or check that a new building under construction has a permit.”

The council disagreed with the mayor over the state budget as well -- namely, what recommendations to give lawmakers as they try to close Alaska’s $3 billion deficit.

Kelty favored a direct approach. In a draft letter to Juneau, he called for a number of specific legislative actions, including the adoption of state income and sales taxes.

“We can’t cut our way out of the deficit," he said. "We heard last year that they could lay off every state employee and it still wouldn’t get us out. So we’ve got to start generating some revenues, and I think it’s important we take a stand on this.”

But the council refused to take such a particular stance, especially when they couldn’t reach a consensus on how the state should handle taxes, earnings from the Permanent Fund, or oil and gas tax credits.

City Manager Dave Martinson agreed the city’s recommendations should stay general. He said the council should press lawmakers for a long-term budget solution without boxing them in.

"The one thing you don’t want to do is send the Legislature into a fist fight with their hands tied behind their back,” he said.

The council will continue working on the city’s budget priorities and a letter to Juneau at their next meeting.

Meanwhile, they did seem to agree on one financial topic: making a contribution to the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Dutch Harbor. In June, the three-day event will memorialize the World War II attack as well as the forced evacuation of the Unangan people.

Councilor Roger Rowland said the city should help, especially as it may be the last chance to honor elderly Unangax who were interred during the war.

“I appreciate everything the military did, but it’s a bummer -- what happened to some of the locals here," he said. "I think it’s pretty cool that we can honor them in some way, and I’d definitely support some funding.”

The council will decide the amount at a future session. Their next regular meeting is Feb. 14.

Laura Kraegel reported for KUCB from 2016 until 2020. She was KUCB's news director starting in 2019. We are proud to have her back in the spring of 2023 filling in as an interim reporter for KUCB.
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