Closure of Ninilchik DOT station reflects pain of budget cuts

Posted: Friday, July 05, 2002

The closure of the Ninilchik state road maintenance station exemplifies the dilemma of budget cuts: Pleas to cut state spending are met with pleas to not cut that particular part of state spending, no matter what part it is.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and borough Mayor Dale Bagley are doing their jobs by sending letters to the governor and the commissioner of the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities asking for reconsideration of the closure based on several valid points, including:

The savings may not be as much as planned, since roads still must be maintained. While service levels will be reduced saving fuel, sand and equipment maintenance, overtime costs are likely to increase because workers from Soldotna and Homer will have to cover the area.

Inadequate road maintenance will pose a hardship to many on the peninsula, including those who must travel the Sterling Highway south to Homer or from Homer north.

There is a potential public safety issue if the closure results in inadequate access to residents of the Ninilchik area by police, fire and emergency service workers.

Nevertheless, state officials did not arbitrarily cut the Ninilchik station or the other two road maintenance stations that were closed this year; nor do they want to put anyone's life in jeopardy with the cuts.

Unfortunately, like too many other things in Alaska politics, the DOT cuts are ripe for partisan finger-pointing. On the one hand, Alaskans have heard the Legislature, read that the Republican majority, is to blame. On the other hand, they've heard Gov. Tony Knowles' administration, read that the Democratic minority, is to blame.

Our take is there's plenty of blame to go around -- and all Alaskans share in it. We do get the government we deserve.

Those who say DOT still has fat to cut and did not have to cut any maintenance stations should consider the following:

This year's budget cuts leave the commissioner, one deputy commissioner and one special assistant at the helm for a department of approximately 3,000 employees. This year's budget forced the elimination of 70 permanent positions, including that of a deputy commissioner.

There are no "supervisors" left at any of the maintenance stations; they are all "working foremen."

The Legislature determines the budget amount for DOT and then allocates a specific amount to each "budget reporting unit." The department, with advice from the field, then decides how best to work within the amount budgeted.

The department, as reflected in the governor's proposed budget, figured it would take a $6.8 million increase to just do the same job this year as it did last year. The proposed hike reflected "fixed cost" increases in such things as utilities, fuel, labor, leases and equipment.

The $23 million increase in DOT's budget is mostly federal funds that can be used only for new construction. That money cannot be used for highway maintenance. The irony is that once the new roads are built, if the current budget trend continues, there will be no money to maintain them.

There's not an area in the state that can't make the same arguments the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and mayor have made about the closure of any road maintenance station. The bottom line is all the cuts hurt someone, and it would be hard to find anyone who is happy with them.

Pointing fingers about why the state got in this mess

doesn't get us out of the rut we're in, and the question remains: What are the state's options?

One was suggested by Mayor Bagley: contract out portions of road maintenance throughout the state. Certainly contracting road maintenance is a better alternative to closing maintenance stations if savings can be realized and safety can be assured.

The assembly hinted at another option when it mentioned how the borough's Road Service Area's mill rate recently was increased by .5 mills to begin addressing needed improvements to borough roads. It also noted construction has begun within the borough's first Road Improvement Assessment District, where residents of a subdivision have agreed to be assessed the cost of paving the roads in their neighborhood.

The connection to the state: Roads are important to Alaskans -- so important we have shown a willingness to pay for them, at least on the borough level.

The lesson for legislators and other state officials: Alaskans may not be as cheap as it often sounds when it comes to paying taxes. They just want to know what they're paying for, and they are willing to pay for roads.

While Alaska continues to struggle with its budget, state and borough officials might consider options for working together to eliminate public-safety concerns caused by the closure of the Ninilchik road maintenance station.

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