Impact of cuts outlined

State officials address chamber

Posted: Thursday, April 18, 2002

"If the public is willing to live with these cuts, I'll support that. I just don't want people to say, 'I didn't know' or 'I didn't understand,'" Glenn Godfrey told members of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce Wednesday morning.

Godfrey, the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Public Safety, was one of four government-affiliated speakers who addressed the chamber at a special breakfast meeting Wednesday to discuss the specific Kenai Peninsula impacts of proposed cuts to the state budget.

"Most attention around the state has been on the fiscal plan, with less attention on what's going to happen with the budget," said Annalee McConnell, director of the governor's Office of Management and Budget. "We felt it would be a real disservice if we didn't make an effort to get the information out, to make sure local governments and businesses knew what's coming ..."

McConnell explained that the 2003 budget drawn up by Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat, asked for a $99 million increase over last year to hold the line with the level of public service in the state. That increase reflected $47 million needed to replace federal cuts to Corrections and Medicaid and nearly $57 million to deal with increases in private-sector costs such as labor contracts, leases and elections.

Legislative budget plans, however, maintain dollars rather than services, she said.

"Obviously, if you hold the line on dollars and have an increase in costs, then you have to cut services," McConnell said. "As each year progresses, it's harder to avoid public impact.

"The magnitude of this (year's reductions are) much more severe than in past years. At some point, you can't keep cutting administration to avoid street impact."

Godfrey, Kurt Parkan, deputy commissioner of the Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and Jim Stratton, director of the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, were on hand to discuss what the street impact of the cuts would be in their own departments and to explain how such decisions were made.

Godfrey said the budget cuts to Public Safety will be absorbed by cutting about 40 employees, including 19 to 23 Alaska State Troopers across the state. Those trooper cuts will come from the three biggest posts, including Soldotna, because these posts are near large population bases and can work with city police departments.

That cooperation means more possibilities for public service and for officer safety.

Under current plans, the Soldotna post will lose four troopers, one civilian and one court services officer. It will also lose two Fish and Wildlife Protection aids, as the aid program will have to be eliminated throughout the state.

The aid program was designed to provide seasonal help to the 91 Fish and Wildlife officers who also perform trooper duties and, Godfrey said, has been successful. But, he added, "It's ridiculous that this state has only 91 game wardens. We don't want to cut any more."

Godfrey said he expects the department cuts to mean less public safety service, slower processing for building inspections and fingerprint processing and a greater vulnerability to security threats such as terrorism.

"We're getting down to the bone and marrow," he said. "I think we're doing a tremendous job and that the officers are really diligent, but I think it's only a matter of time before something critical happens."

Stratton said cuts to the State Parks budget also promise broad impact.

He said that for the five years that he has been with the department, the Parks budget has held steady at $5.4 million per year.

"Only North Dakota has a smaller state park budget," he said.

But the Republican-controlled state House of Representatives' budget proposal includes a $1 million cut to the parks budget, and that means closing facilities.

Stratton said that parks were assessed based on operation cost, use and revenue. The parks that cost the most and brought in the fewest people -- such as Captain Cook State Recreational Area at the end of the Kenai Spur Highway -- will have to shut down. Picnic tables and fire pits will be removed, access roads will be gated, and outhouses will be boarded up to protect the state's investment in case the parks are reopened in the future and to guard public safety.

The impact of these closures means that area businesses may lose money from tourists, as state parks get approximately 800,000 visits per year, and visitors frequent area businesses for repairs, food, fishing tackle and gifts.

The closures also mean that private campgrounds will likely fill up faster, the Department of Transportation will have more problems with RVs camped overnight on highway pullouts, and fire risks may increase due to a lack of fire pits and supervision in the closed park area.

Cuts to the Department of Transportation relate to both parks and trooper cuts, Parkan said.

For example, DOT cuts mean that the roads to the open parks will not be maintained as well and that snow plowing will be slower, leaving more drivers stranded on the roads and making trooper response time slower.

"There's connectivity between budget cuts with just these three departments, and there's more out there," Parkan said.

In addition, cuts will mean closing maintenance stations across the state and eliminating staff positions.

"We've received cuts for the last seven years. We've cut middle management and reorganized the department. Still, we're looking at administration first," Parkan said, explaining that the 2003 budget cuts would result in a 61 percent reduction of discretionary administrative travel funds and the elimination of one of two deputy commissioners.

"Where else do we cut?" Parkan asked. "When you cut $11 million, you can't take it all out of paper clips, stamps and travel."

Even after administrative cuts, the House budget would mean closing the Ninilchik station, cutting two staff positions in both Soldotna and Homer and cutting one position in Seward. Under the Senate budget, Ninilchik would stay open, but positions would still be eliminated.

To illustrate the impact of such reductions, Parkan explained that DOT workloads are measured across the country in terms of miles each operator is responsible for. The average for western states is 29 miles per operator.

Under the House budget, the Soldotna station would average 63 miles per operator.

"The impacts are going to be real," Parkan said. "We're trying to let the Legislature know the impact of these cuts so they can change it before it's too late."

"Legislators need to hear from people in their district that as an alternative to cuts, people would be willing to pay for some services," McConnell said after the meeting. "I think the majority of Alaskans realize that we've reached the point where a deterioration of basic services -- public safety, roads, education -- is one choice. The other is that people don't want that to happen and are ready to pay."

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