Budget cuts manifesting through shuttered state services

From Kotzebue to Ketchikan, the State of Alaska is closing offices and programs as funding runs out.

The Department of Labor and Workforce Development announced Aug. 15 that it would be closing AVTEC’s Anchorage campus immediately due to state budget cuts.

Formerly the Alaska Vocational Technical Center, AVTEC is Alaska’s primary public vocational and technical college. Its main campus is in Seward.

AVTEC’s Allied Health Program, which trained nurses and nursing assistants, is the casualty losing the Anchorage extension.

“It is frustrating and disappointing to close a campus that trains Alaskans for rewarding careers in a fast-growing industry like health care. The department’s and AVTEC’s budgets have seen big cuts in the past couple years and we simply can’t afford to keep the Anchorage campus open,” Labor Commissioner Heidi Drygas said in a release announcing the closure.

Heather Beaty, director of the Alaska Workforce Investment Board said in an interview that the Allied Health Program run out of Anchorage usually enrolled about 100 nursing assistant students each year. The registered nurse program was shuttered after the 2015 class graduated and the licensed practical nurse program was “put into abeyance” last November, Beaty said.

“We’ve been looking for other funding sources to bring that program back online and had people on a waiting list hoping that we could do that, but the continued cuts to the budget caused us to close down all of the Allied Health programs at the campus here in Anchorage,” she said.

There were 30 people on the LPN program waitlist, according to the Labor Department.

AVTEC’s overall budget peaked in fiscal year 2013 — as did most state agency and program funding — at $16.1 million. By 2015 AVTEC’s budget was down slightly to $15.6 million and this fiscal year, 2017, it received $14.9 million from the Legislature.

Beaty said closing the Allied Health Program saved the popular school $705,000 per year, but also meant cutting four full-time instructors.

There are no plans to consolidate the program into the Seward campus.

“If things changed I’m sure the department would reexamine (the Allied Health Program) because occupations in health care are growing fast and in high demand,” Beaty said. “It was a painful decision to have to close this program because they’re good careers for Alaskans with good wages and opportunities for advancement but we cannot afford it at this point.”

As a whole, the Department of Labor budget has shrunk 16 percent from $195.5 million in 2013 to $164.4 million this fiscal year — more than half of which is designated federal money.

The decline in Labor’s unrestricted General Fund, or UGF, budget has been sharper. The department has absorbed nearly a 40 percent UGF budget cut since 2013 and a 37 percent cut over the past two years to its current $15.3 million UGF level.

The State of Alaska has run budget deficits driven by a loss of General Fund revenue in the $3 billion range the past years and a the drastic and sustained drop in oil markets indicates little end to the deficits in sight with status quo state spending and revenue.

Gov. Bill Walker vetoed approximately $870 million from the 2017 budget June 29 after legislators failed to pass the key elements of his administration’s broad fiscal plan to balance the state budget by 2019. His line item vetoes did not directly impact the specific services highlighted in this story.

It’s the UGF cuts that led to the Aug. 11 announcement that the Labor Department would be closing the Kotzebue Job Center to save $166,000 annually. That office was scheduled to close Aug. 19.

Labor Commissioner Drygas said in a formal statement that the department would continue to assist Kotzebue residents who used the job center through online services.

According to Beaty, 413 individuals utilized the Kotzebue Job Center in 2015 and it received 2,200 total visits from residents of the town of about 3,200 people.

Job centers in Barrow and Seward were closed last year to save a total of $316,000 per year, a department release states.

Beaty said individuals make use of the job centers for “anything from just coming in to do job searches online or filing for unemployment insurance or working one-on-one with our staff for more extensive training and support.”

The “more extensive training and support” often includes assessments for appropriate training programs, updating resumes and sharpening interview skills among other things, she said.

Beaty added that the department has tried to make sure Alaskans, particularly in rural areas, still have some access to employment resources.

“In the case of Kotzebue we’ve donated a few of the computers that were in our office to Maniilaq Association (a local social service nonprofit) so that we can ensure the public still has access to those computers and the Internet connection to get online with our services,” she said. “In Seward, the job center was actually located on the AVTEC campus so that room is still open to the public with computers and a phone that they can use to connect with our Kenai Job Center staff for personal assistance.”

Beaty also said she is not aware of any other closures on the immediate horizon, but if budget cuts continue in the 2018 budget the department will have to continue eliminating services and programs.

“It’s a tough reality but these are the effects of this budget climate,” Beaty said.

On Sept. 15, the Ketchikan Regional Youth Facility will close its doors and 15 full-time Division of Juvenile Justice employees will be let go, the state Department of Health and Social Services announced also Aug. 15.

“Youth in detention will now have to be sent further away from their home communities and hard-working state employees will lose their jobs when the facility closes,” DHSS Commissioner Valerie Davidson said in a statement. “But given the financial realities we face in our state, we know closing the Ketchikan facility is necessary.”

Young Alaskans at the Ketchikan facility will be transferred to the Johnson Youth Center in Juneau, according to a DHSS release.

Juvenile Justice Director Rob Wood said low utilization — certainly a good thing when the topic is youth detention — contributed to closing the Ketchikan center as well.

The Ketchikan Regional Youth Facility got $1.86 million in the 2017 budget that includes legislative intent language to convert the facility to an adolescent substance abuse and behavioral health treatment center.

The $1.8 million was on par with previous year’s allocations.

“It wasn’t being used being used enough as a detention center, so we were looking to see if we would be able to create a treatment program out of it that would have some Medicaid support and it just didn’t work out.”

The Ketchikan center has had eight to 10 beds available for the past decade, but on average only three or four of those beds have been used most days, according to Juvenile Justice Division data.

Statewide, juvenile detention and treatment facilities had capacity for 257 youth in 2015, down from 295 in 2006. 

However, even as the number of available beds has decreased, so has the percentage of beds being used. Utilization of state youth detention and treatment facilities has fallen from about 85 percent of available space in 2006 to less than 70 percent in 2015.

“We’ve just had low utilization largely because we’ve got a fairly small juvenile crime rate the last few years,” Wood said. “It’s hard to maintain programs that cost $1.9 million per year when you have those low numbers.”

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

08/17/2016 - 11:47am