Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Editor’s note: This is the second of a three-part series in which the Clarion will present Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams’ initial assessment of the state of the borough as he begins to put his administration together.
During his three-week runoff election campaign for the Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor’s job, John Williams often said voters had been clear on Oct. 4; they want a leaner, less-costly borough government.
That’s what he intends to deliver, he said in an interview last week. Pulling no punches, he said it would be painful. Indeed, in the first 10 days of his three-year term, changes already have taken place. Jack Brown, business manager of the Community and Economic Development Division has resigned.
“There is no position there any more. The job will be eliminated at the end of the month,” Williams said. “We are in the process of shutting down the CEDD office.”
Likewise, Finance Director Scott Holt has submitted his resignation, and Craig Chapman has become acting director. That leaves the Finance Department a person short. It’s likely to stay that way for a while. Chapman, Williams said, is fully capable of running the department for the time being.
The borough has retained at least for now its relationship with the Small Business Development Center, which occupied office space at the same Red Diamond Center Mall along with the CEDD and other programs or borough functions such as Kenai Wild and Risk Management.
The borough will soon terminate its mall leases on some 3,200 square feet costing roughly $1 per square foot a month, Williams said.
The new 911 building under construction in Soldotna will come on line in June of next year. At that time, Emergency Management will be moved from its current site in an add-on behind the Borough Building on North Binkley Street to the new structure, and the Risk Management office will move into the add-on.
Other space allocation measures are in the works. Williams said the lease for the Kenai Spur Highway office for the Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program is to be renegotiated in March. That program, however, operates on a federal grant. Still, Williams promised a close look at the nine-member staff to see if it is too big, too small or just right.
Special scrutiny will be given to Central Emergency Services, Emergency Management and the spruce bark beetle program, Williams said.
“CES is a great big bundle of people, money, equipment, buildings,” he said.
One of those CES buildings near Mackey Lakes is being considered for sale, the proceeds from which would go to offset the capital costs of new facilities elsewhere, such as the new station in Kasilof.
As far as cuts go, Williams already has directed that $600,000 earmarked for new software not be spent.
“We can get by for three or four more years” on the old technology, he said.
Williams has not ruled out trying to reduce any duplication of services by combining departments, though no such plans exist now.
“If there is a way to do that and eliminate personnel in the process, I would probably look at that,” he said.
He said the transition team was providing him with overviews about how departments work and what their expenses are.
An example of the costs, he said, is the current ACS cell phone contract.
“That bill is over $85,000 a year,” he said. “We think that’s an inordinate expense, so we’re going to start trimming back on some of that. We’re asking ACS to come up with a better cell phone service for us.”
Vehicles present another cost center. Williams said he’s asked for an analysis of whether it would be cheaper to own a pool of vehicles available to those employees who are on the road a lot, or continue paying employees a car allowance in addition to their salaries.
The borough currently pays about 240 workers. That number may soon change.
“I said to the staff the other day, the word must go out to all department heads that the axe may have to fall, and that I want (them) to be prepared to tell me exactly who it is you are going to let go,” Williams said.
Several factors would go into those decisions, including union contract obligations. That contract allows for the release of employees, mostly based on the elimination of positions. There are safeguards and restrictive rules for the process of force reductions that protect union workers as well as the borough, he said.
Of those 240 workers, about 46 are not under a union contract, but all but 11 have other kinds of employment protections. The 11 are department heads who work at the pleasure of the mayor.
The borough is facing rapidly rising costs and declining savings. Tax revenue may not meet demand, putting more stress on the fund balance savings account. The pressure to shave expenditures even led Williams to freeze purchase of a new $250,000 fire truck.
“It’s not that CES can’t afford to buy it, but my question concerns need. I want to review CES. There are other issues that may take precedence over a new truck,” he said. “The building on Funny River Road, construction of a new building in Kasilof, completing and moving into the new 911 building. Those things have to be paid for by taxpayers.”
The rising cost of fuel is another headache. Williams said he has not yet seen an updated figure on the cost of fuel needed to heat the roughly 100 buildings operated by the borough.
The bulk of the funds controlled by the borough about $75 million at this time are encumbered funds. That is, they have strings attached, like those designated for specific projects or programs. Before it is actually spent, that money is invested to earn interest, typically in the safest kind of government and corporate bonds.
Williams said he is reviewing whether the company currently handling that investment portfolio is hitting the right benchmarks though he acknowledged the borough may not have given the clearest of benchmarks to shoot at. He is considering using local investment firms with national reputations to handle the investment of at least some of those funds.
He does know the fees associated with investing the borough’s capital are sizable about $100,000 a year.
The mayor, his immediate staff and the transition team are continuing to review all aspects of the borough budget and bureaucracy. A final transition report is due in 30 to 45 days, Williams said. At that point, Williams said the details will be shared with the public.
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