Petersburg Pilot -


Community service leaders lobby against proposed budget cuts


Kyle Clayton / Petersburg Pilot

Thomason speaks in support of the school district. PSD principals and other district staff attended the budget session.

With some assembly members proposing cuts to school and mental health services funding, Petersburg School District (PSD) Superintendent Dr. Rob Thomason and Petersburg Mental Health Services (PMHS) Director Susan Ohmer each rallied against the potential cuts.

Thomason explained that State and local funding has remained flat for the last four years.

The State funds public school districts on a per pupil basis-an amount of $5,680 per child. Declining enrollment and increased operations and personnel costs have further complicated PSD funding, Thomason said.

"The district has managed to live within it's means while growing the outstanding and award winning program that's in place today," Thomason said.

In Petersburg, 80 percent of the budget is related to personnel costs-contractual obligations the district can no longer change at this point in the budget process.

Another 15 percent are fixed costs that can't be adjusted by budget makers. The final 5 that can be changed by district staff-should changes be made to the districts funding-include student activities and programs such as sports and music along with vocational education and teaching supplies.

Thomason also said the district is facing a shortfall of between $300,000 to $348,000 for the upcoming school year.

"Had the district not made incremental reductions over the last five years this number would be significantly higher," Thomason said.

The low end of that shortfall has been met through attrition and eliminating one staff position. The high end of that shortfall won't be met even if the borough funds the district at the budgeted $1.8 million.

"As we draw this to a close, as the assembly deliberates the funding future for the Petersburg School District and other critical social programs, it's important to take the time to receive and study accurate and detailed information," Thomason said. "It's time to resist simple knee jerk quick fix solutions to complex funding issues and to bear in mind that any community is only as strong as it's social structure."

During the last several years, the borough has funded the district $1.8 million. $600,000 of that funding comes from federal timber receipts, which have been declining around 5 percent during the past few years but haven't affected local funding because a past assembly saved money to offset those decreases.

Ohmer addressed concerns some assembly members had over the accountability of how PMHS spends borough funds.

"I feel positive about the level of accountability that we have as a non-profit agency that is audited by multiple folks both financial and state who come in," Ohmer said.

She also said local funds contribute to a wider offering of services. The state provides PMHS $183,000 for services but limits the types of patients that can be seen. Local funds aren't restrictive in that way and allow PMHS staff to respond to local mental health emergencies.

She also said the local funding allows her agency to leverage federal grants that typically like to see local dollars being provided.

Ohmer added that PMHS is also attempting to save money through attrition. PMHS won't replace two positions left vacant by outgoing staff.

"The bottom line is we'll be reducing our services even with the funding that we get locally," Ohmer said. "We'll continue to do the best we can. Without local funding it hamstrings us in so many different ways in terms of leveraging grants and being able to see the type of clients that we see and being able to provide the level of response that we provide for the police and hospital and other agencies that ask us for help. We'll do something with the money that we get from the state to provide for those services but it will not look the same."

Assembly member John Havrilek said he thinks school district funding should be cut by $200,000 because the borough has continued to fund the school at $1.8 million despite decreased enrollment. He said the $85,000 budgeted for PMHS should be cut because there's no accountability for the money and that services should be contracted out as needed.

Proposed Budget

"I'm not in disagreement with anything anyone said," Havrilek said. "I think we have an excellent community with excellent services and I don't see any deficits in the quality or quantity of services that are offered. But I am really concerned about our spending level. I do feel deeply that it needs to be cut."

Representatives from Mountain View Manor, KFSK and the Clausen Museum also spoke on behalf of their agencies.

Borough department heads submitted the current proposed budget to the assembly last week. The assembly hasn't given department heads any other official direction as to how they'd like to see the budget changed.

The first formal reading of the proposed budget will occur during the first borough assembly meeting in May and a public hearing will occur the second meeting in May. The proposed budget, barring any changes, will then be approved as a written ordinance the first meeting in June.


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