Budget cuts could mean road services, as Kenai Peninsula residents have known them, are about to bust an axle.
The proposed state budget passed by the Republican-controlled Alaska House of Representatives March 18 would cut $15.5 million from next year's general fund budget for the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. The measure, House Bill 403, is now under review in the state Senate.
If approved, the cutbacks would cause layoffs, service delays, deteriorating roads and airstrips and the closure of the Ninilchik road maintenance station.
Carl High, the Kenai Peninsula district roads superintendent, called the situation disheartening.
"We are looking at some pretty devastating cuts," he said. "It is depressing. We feel we are minimally staffed now to do our job. ... These guys take pride in their work and their ability to perform a service to the community."
His district would lose 11 positions, nine on the Kenai Peninsula and two in Kodiak, plus valuable road maintenance equipment. Allowances for overtime, traditionally used to respond to storms and emergencies, will be reduced. The road crews do not have the resources to stretch and cover the gaps, so the public would have to wait longer to be plowed out in winter and put up with more potholes in spring.
The department also plans to cut administration, including one deputy commissioner.
The cuts are distributed fairly evenly around the state, working out to about 10 percent of the current level.
But one exception is the North Kenai Maintenance Station, which nearly closed in 1999. The Legislature singled it and the Northern Region Road Openings as preferential areas and prohibited DOT from considering them for additional service level reductions, according to a March 12 impact report written by Nancy Slagle, director of DOT administrative services.
"This approach is unfair to the rest of the state," she wrote.
High said the cut positions would result in layoffs, often of senior personnel. Who gets cut is based on how long they have worked at their current station, not at overall seniority.
"It will be laying off people who have been with the state for 20 years and doing a good job," he said.
The closure in Ninilchik will cost the community three jobs and mean that Soldotna and Homer road crews will have more miles to maintain despite their own cutbacks. Six other stations around the state are slated for closure, too.
The cuts would also remove equipment and liquidate it from the fleet. The peninsula would lose two graders and a truck. That move is particularly frustrating because the state recently got new equipment after years of limping old machines along, High said.
State department of transportation workers Bill Pool and Bob Bondurant fill a large pothole on the Kenai Spur Highway last winter.
Photo by M. SCOTT MOON
The proposal would eliminate maintenance at airstrips that can be reached by road. On the peninsula, those affected would be Kasilof, Lawing, Ninilchik and Quartz Creek. Currently, DOT crews provide snow removal, grading and upkeep of wind socks and markers. Because most of that work requires heavy equipment, High doubts private aviators will be able to keep the strips open.
The DOT impact report said medical evacuations from those strips will require helicopters in the future.
The Highway Damage Program is another on the chopping block. It replaces guardrails, signs and other road items damaged in accidents. High said insurance payments from those accidents could fully fund the program, but those revenues were diverted to the state's general fund. Cuts will mean that repairs will fall behind damage and accumulate, he predicted.
Also on the chopping block are the new roadside toilets at Canyon Creek, along the Seward Highway near the Hope turnoff. Although federal road construction funding built the new facilities and they are popular, the state does not have money to maintain them, he said.
The proposed cuts would add up to about $933,000 for the Kenai Peninsula.
The state budget proposed by Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, would have maintained DOT funding at the current level, but it as rejected by the Legislature's Republican majority.
Still, Sen. Jerry Ward, R-Nikiski, blamed Knowles for the way cuts have been made. Ward said the legislators' intent was to force DOT to cut what he calls "middle management," and he accused the governor of making the cuts as painful as possible to weaken public resistance to taxes.
"It is completely out of whack," he said. "I am going to try to undo the governor's cuts. I think he made the wrong cuts."
Meanwhile, High and his crews are in suspense about what will happen to them come July 1, the beginning of the new fiscal year.
Despite Ward's claims of ballooning state budgets, High said DOT maintenance crews have worked under flat line budgets since 1987. It is time for Alaskans to take a frank look at the role of government, he said.
"We all see a benefit from properly funded public services," High said. "It is time for the people to decide what level of service they want, and what they are willing to pay for it."
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