A hiring freeze may be thawing out at the borough. The assembly approved a resolution at its meeting this week encouraging the administration to fill positions that have been open for more than a year.
A number of borough positions opened up after Mayor Charlie Pierce took office back in 2017. At the time, the borough was looking at a multi-million dollar budget deficit. That deficit was eventually closed by some unexpected revenues, but the jobs remained open going into this year’s budget. Mayor Pierce has cited the state’s uncertain financial situation and his promise not to raise taxes as reasons for the continued openings.
“I was elected to do that," Pierce said. "That was a request of the people that elected me to do that. Don’t tax me. And I’m trying to honor those that elected me to be their mayor.”
But the borough’s financial situation isn’t the same as the state’s. When the governor presented his budget in February, it looked like the borough might lose as much as $20 million from various revenue streams, but three months later, that looks unlikely, but a hiring freeze has been in place since then.
So, the question has become why not finally fill those positions. According to Chief of Staff James Baisden, some of them are being filled.
“Things have changed and we’ve spoken with our folks down in Juneau… and so we kind of started back through the process of opening some of the positions up again and back (on) April 23rd is when we started. We’ve got seven of those full time positions now back out that we are going to fill. And we’ve put in the mayor’s budget to fund the other positions...We plan on getting there but we still think that we’re going to take some hits when the governor gets done with this and we’re just kind of playing that card, too.”
This issue was raised, in part, after Julie Denison, the president of the borough’s employee union, sent a letter to the assembly outlining her opposition to the assembly recently approving supplemental funding for the school district, while a number of borough jobs go unfulfilled. In response, assembly member Dale Bagley noted that the those positions were funded, but not filled. That’s a choice made by the mayor’s office.
Another part of this equation is the borough’s fund balance; a savings account more or less, that right now has around $20 million. By law, it has to have around $15 million. The mayor’s goal is a balanced budget where income and expenditures are the same. Bagley says that’s not necessary.
“I always got into arguments with Peter Micciche when he was mayor of Soldotna and he thought it was fiscally irresponsible not to do a balanced budget. And my view of the world is because revenues almost always come in higher than projected and expenditures aren’t usually as high as you think they are, you always have this budget versus actual lapse. And if you actually do a balanced budget, you’re going to be sticking a bunch, in our case probably $2-3 million dollars, in the general fund every year.”
And too much in that fund balance leads to unnecessary spending, says mayor Pierce, while alternatively, spending it down too far leads to more taxes to make up the difference. The assembly adopted the resolution to end the mayor’s hiring freeze. Right now, five full time positions are accepting applicants and more openings are expected to be advertised in the near future.