Education advocates push for sales tax increase

Apr 4, 2018

Credit Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly is once again grappling with the budget and looming deficits. The borough is facing a $4 million spending gap while the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District hopes to fill a $3 million hole in its budget. But on Tuesday, the assembly postponed a sales-tax increase proposal and a proposed $3 million transfer from the borough’s land trust fund in order to weigh all options.

Several education advocates took their turn asking the assembly to fully fund education Tuesday, and most said they’re willing to pay more taxes in order to make that happen. Lesley Morton is a parent and former tutor who was laid off from the district.

“Please don’t be like our federal government driving us into debt. Raise the sales tax, it’s fine, really it’s fine,” Morton said. “I realize that I must pay for the services that I want, and I want a good school district. I’m willing to pay for it.”

Homer’s representative Kelly Cooper proposed putting a .5-percent sales tax increase on the ballot in October. If voters approved the proposal, it would raise about $5 million annually.  Sales tax in the borough is dedicated to education funding, but the move would also free up other money the borough needs for services.

The district passed its budget Monday, and it’s asking the assembly fund education at the cap, about $2 million more than it received last year.

Soldotna Elementary aide John Sanborn supports a sales tax increase. He said the assembly risks losing qualified teachers, even the ones who survive budget cuts, if it doesn’t fully fund education.

“They may look elsewhere,” Sanborn added. “I’m hearing that rhetoric occurring among employees saying, ‘Gosh, I don’t know if I’ll have a job. Why should I stay here?’”

Kenai kindergarten teacher Daniel Bowen told assembly members that was certainly the case for him.

“I’m nervous whether I’m going to have my livelihood. If we’re flat funding our education, we’re looking at potentially losing six teachers from our district,” he said.

The assembly ultimately postponed its vote on the measure until May 1, but there was support from members.

“This won’t be the battle here I don’t believe in this body,” Kenai representative Hal Smalley said. “The battle is going to be convincing the voters to do this. I’d like to sign on as a co-sponsor to this.”

That has been an issue for past tax proposals. Borough residents rejected increasing the sales tax cap last year and have voted no on other measures in recent years.

Norm Blakely, who represents Sterling and Funny River, wanted to amend the proposal to include a four-year sunset clause. The amendment would have allowed voters to reapprove the tax in 2023. Blakely said that would help garner more public support, but the amendment failed in a 6-3 vote.

The assembly also postponed another funding measure, which would transfer $3 million from the borough’s land trust fund into the general fund. Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce said the move would allow the borough to flat fund education while bridging its budget gap.

Pierce, who has pushed back against funding education at the cap, said the assembly should consider all options before taxing borough residents during a recession.

“I want to caution you. Here’s you an option: take another $1.5 million out of the land trust fund, and I’ve heard the education comments tonight,” Pierce quipped. “Let’s make sure our kids get a good education. You’ve got ordinance 2017-19-21, go in and revise it. Change it from $3 million to $4.5 [million].”

Other assembly members suggested finding more immediate solutions rather than relying on voter approval for the sales tax increase or dipping into reserves. It’s unclear what those options might be, but the assembly will pick up the discussion again on May 1.