By Naomi Klouda
Watchdog efforts by the Alliance for Concerned Taxpayers sharpened their teeth this week in a new public information project aimed at informing the public on government spending.
ACT mailed out a list of agenda items introduced at the Feb. 21 Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting. Beside each ordinance was a label of either “controversial” or “off-budget” or both. ACT will then keep tabs on the voting record for each assembly member, said ACT’s Mike McBride.
Off-budget items are spending requests made after the fiscal year’s budget was already passed. So far, the borough has spent $500,000 in this category, according to ACT’s research surveying allocations since July 1, 2011.
“We want to make people aware ahead of time what off-budget items are being considered,” McBride said. “This is new. We started working on it in December, and all of our information will be sent out by email, (announcing) notice for issues up for public hearing. These are issues that have not been voted on yet. Then, once voted on by the assembly, it will be posted on our website (www.act-kpb.org).”
ACT’s objective is to help stop spending it considers to be wasteful, that, according to McBride, will lead to either the borough dipping into savings or raising citizens’ taxes. Some examples of measures ACT has targeted include:
- Ordinance 2011-19-70 was branded as “controversial/off-budget” in proposing $200,000 to hire a consultant to help find ways to cut borough health care costs. It was proposed by Mayor Mike Navarre and will be up for a hearing March 13.
- Ordinance 2011-19-71 also is called “controversial/off-budget.” It asks for $35,000 to pay for attorneys to defend the borough against a lawsuit filed by Kahtnu Ventures, a group of surgeons applying for a Certificate of Need from the state of Alaska to open an outpatient surgery center in Kenai.
- Ordinance 2011-19-68 is labeled as “off-budget.” It is a request for $29,750 for the purchase of limited-liability reports.
- Also labeled “off-budget” is Ordinance 2011-19-73, which seeks $569,292 from the Equipment Replacement Fund to purchase new software for tabulating taxes.
- Ordinance 2011-19-72 is labeled “controversial.” It would spend $4.7 million on a Radiation Oncology Facility at Central Peninsula Hospital. It, too, was proposed by the mayor and will be up for public testimony March 13.
Navarre said that he brought forth this proposal on behalf of the Central Peninsula General Hospital Board of Directors, which has long held a vision to provide service to cancer patients currently traveling to Anchorage for treatment. ACT has labeled it controversial because an Anchorage physician, John Halligan, in private practice, has proposed building a cancer treatment facility independent of the hospital. ACT sees the hospital’s proposal as government competing with private enterprise.
Navarre responds that the ordinance isn’t competitive. If the facility were built under the auspices of the hospital, it would still be open to private practice.
“We would be happy to have the service here under any circumstances. The reason we’ve introduced it is because there are discussions about having it in our facility, and if it is off campus there would be fractured services for cancer patients,” Navarre said. “A better-coordinated plan is to have it on campus. In either case, it will be operated as a private operation. We’re just building the structure, and doctors would lease the space to run as a private practice.”
As for the $200,000 for finding ways to bring down the borough’s health care costs, Navarre said that expenditure could be cheap if in the long run the borough is able to chop down some of the $23 million a year spent on public employee health care coverage.
“In looking at the budget, it’s clear that what’s driving the budget over time is increasing health care costs. Our initial focus was on figuring if we can find a structure to let us form a pool with Homer, Seward, Kenai — how to put the mix together in group buying power,” Navarre said.
Every year, health care costs are rising, leaving all these municipal governments stumped for solutions.
“We need to start making sure we stay on top of the changes to health care and look at opportunities through efficiencies and provisions. It’s a good investment given how much we are spending on health care,” Navarre said.
ACT hasn’t said it is against certain appropriations. The point is to further involve constituents in government by providing them with information in advance of meetings.
“We’re not necessarily taking a position one way or another, just that we feel these are off-budget items and this is how they voted and how much they spent. The question that comes to mind is whether these expenditures, when working on the budget, weren’t thought out. Is it bad planning or is it something else?” McBride said. “It’s a nagging question that needs to be asked.
“They can take whatever action they feel is appropriate. The more people are informed, the better our government is,” he said.