The Nome City Council is moving ahead with plans to add humidity controls to the city’s new library and museum project.
At the council’s meeting Monday, May 11, the first order of business was hearing from Nome Public Schools and how much the city is being asked to contribute to school funding. A change in property assessments means a smaller “ask” by the schools—in all, a request of about $2,014,000—about $28,000 less than last year.
What was surprising at the meeting wasn’t the shrinking request, but rather the amicable tone between the council and the schools. Compared to last year’s hawkish questions, council members were doves.
In explaining the cuts to state funding and other sources of revenue, cuts that will require the school district to use more than $300,000 of its own fund balance (commonly referred to as the district’s “savings”) to make ends meet, Superintendent Shawn Arnold began by explaining the shuffling of staff at the pre-K level wouldn’t result in anyone losing a job, but it would reduce the number of teachers in Head Start and pre-kindergarten by one.
“Our biggest hit this year was our preschool,” Arnold said. “We would have lost two positions at Kawerak Head Start and one at Nome Preschool.
“So if I gave you an extra hundred thousand,” council member Stan Andersen interjected, “you would do what with it?”
Arnold said he’d have to consult with the school board on how any additional funds would be spent. The council has until the end of May to decide just how much they’ll contribute to Nome’s schools.
The council then shifted gears from schools to museums: with construction on the Richard Foster Building ramping up for the season, the question came to the council: will the building have a humidification system? Council members discussed three options to add humidity controls to the new museum and library building that will also house Kawerak’s Beringia Center. Initial plans did not include humidity controls, but Amy Chan—the city’s new museum director since February—said it’s a vital part of any new museum.
“Humidity for museum collections is really important,” Chan stressed. “Being able to regulate those levels will really help us to attract external funding on down the road, and beef up our programming. It’s also a big draw to donors, to let them know that we have a really good museum environment, that we can protect their objects if they are going to donate them to the museum.”
For its part in the project, Kawerak says it’s prepared to chip in a proportional share of the extra operating costs—on top of its annual lease—for humidity control.
Ultimately the council drafted an ordinance to add controls to the entire building—at a total cost of just under $420,000. The extra funds will come from the landscaping fund—protecting a roughly $230,000 contingency fund for the project. Engineers say the building is set to be “substantially complete” by the end of the year.
Utility Manager John Handeland checked in with the council, saying more than half a million dollars will be coming back to the city after water system loans were approved by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. But in the wake of high-level April evaluation that painted a troubling picture for utility finances, council member Andersen pressed Handeland to sort out the utility’s billing and collection issues.
“Just because it’s a public utility doesn’t mean that we’re not in a business,” Andersen said. “I see where these people owe thousands of dollars, they’re still drawing juice. So, why aren’t we cutting those off, are we putting liens on their property?”
Andersen said measures in the past few months to make the utility solvent, efforts that trace back not only to the April RUBA report but also the $2.2 million line of credit the utility took out in November, are still “ignoring a problem that has festered for a long time.”
Andersen challenged the utility board to draft a new tariff, or swore he would. And he said it would set strict rules that will do away with permissive billing in what Andersen dubbed the “good old boys network” of Nome.
“And the only way I see it doing that is [by] putting something in writing,” he said, “so whoever is the manager, this is what they have to follow, and if they don’t follow it, they get fired.”
Handeland says a tariff review and change in policies is needed, especially after the short-term rate increase for utility customers, the first in decades, is due to sunset at the end of next month.
The council ended their meeting with plans for more work sessions on the city budget, currently set for Thursday, May 21 at 12 p.m.