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Council Compromises On Budget Goals, While Closing In On New Utility Rates

Mar 2, 2017

The Unalaska City Council is considering subsidizing utilities to prevent rate hikes as high as 50 percent.
Credit Métoule via Flickr Creative Common

Lately, the Unalaska City Council has slogged through a series of marathon meetings, filled with tough financial decisions, tie-breaker votes, and passionate public testimony.

Councilors finally broke through at a meeting Tuesday night.

They unanimously passed budget priorities for the next fiscal year and narrowed in on a new policy to soften the blow of upcoming rate hikes.

The budget resolution will allow the Department of Public Safety to hire two more police officers and pay a full-time fire captain. It also creates -- but doesn’t fund -- the new position of city building inspector.

Getting that job on the books is a compromise with Mayor Frank Kelty. He stalled the city’s budget planning in January, arguing that Unalaska needs an inspector to enforce building codes.

Most councilors have disagreed with Kelty, but all of them voted in favor of the measure Tuesday.

“I will support this because we need to move forward," said Councilor Roger Rowland. "But I’m not all that keen on the building inspector position, especially since it’s not being funded and we don’t have a job description for it. I think we'd have been better served to let city staff bring it forward next budget cycle.”

Unalaska won’t hire an inspector for at least another year, but Kelty said he’s happy the city can start exploring which department will oversee the position and how much it’ll cost to fill.

Meanwhile, councilors continued discussing how to raise utility rates without slamming families and businesses across the island.

Federal mandates forced the city to shell out and upgrade local infrastructure recently, which has led the council to consider hikes as high as 50 percent over the next five years.

One solution is subsidizing utilities with money from the city’s general fund.

That would make the highest rate hike a lot more palatable -- 15 percent over four years -- but it would still require the council to break from tradition and tap into city coffers.

“I like these new concepts and I like taking the sticker shock away, but it is a shift in philosophy for the city,” said Rowland.

Most councilors seemed to lean in favor the subsidy, which would be capped at  $1.3 million annually, but Yudelka Leclere said she worries about sustainability.

“I’m kind of on-the-fence about dipping into the general fund," said Leclere. "My concern is always: How long can we pull from it?”

Councilors will vote on the issue at their next meeting March 14. If they agree on an increase, new utility rates will go into effect in July.

In other business, the council has authorized the city to contribute $40,000 to the June commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the bombing of Dutch Harbor.

The donation will come from the council’s contingency fund. It will go toward travel and housing expenses for visiting World War II veterans and Unangax who were forcibly evacuated during the Aleutian campaign.