The Ketchikan Gateway Borough better be spot on if it’s to pursue a lawsuit against the state.
Too much is at stake, if it loses.
Borough officials contend too much is lost if it doesn’t sue — at least try to gain the relief it believes it’s due.
The key point in the lawsuit is whether requiring organized boroughs to pay a portion of education funding is constitutional.
Borough officials say not.
The same officials presented their argument to legislators, who didn’t respond favorably. As a result, a slim majority of Assembly members favor asking the judicial system to decide the issue.
The Borough Assembly voted 4-3 this week to file the lawsuit, but hasn’t approved the funding to proceed.
The lawsuit will require a fighting spirit from not only this Assembly, but assemblies to come. It would be more assuring if the current Assembly had voted unanimously to pursue the suit. The narrow vote implies uncertainty within the community and casts a shadow of doubt on the necessary commitment to the lawsuit by future assemblies.
By nature a lawsuit creates adversaries.
That’s unfortunate for Ketchikan and the state, which work well together in building the community’s infrastructure and supporting economic development. Think of the capital projects it took both the state and the community to advance — the hospital addition and remodel, the new library, airport improvements, the port expansion, shipyard development — and the list doesn’t end there. Add road improvements. Add water and sewer lines. Add a new fire hall.
Gov. Sean Parnell, as well as legislators from throughout the state, appear genuine in their interest in Ketchikan and its projects. The proof is in state capital dollars sent here.
The lawsuit’s premise focuses on the state requiring organized boroughs to contribute funds to the school districts within their boundaries. The contribution amounts to 2.65 mills in property taxes.
The lawsuit would contend that the state has penalized boroughs for organizing by obligating that contribution. The argument is that such a penalty is unconstitutional, and that state officials encouraged borough formations by promising no penalties.
The lawsuit will affect other boroughs and communities, some of which might be convinced to join Ketchikan’s effort. But, ultimately, the Assembly is responsible to Ketchikan. Ketchikan, as part of Alaska, also would be delinquent if it didn’t point out actions contrary to the constitution — if, indeed, the point is contrary.
The attorney contracted by the borough to research and determine whether the Assembly might win notes that the local government would have to have the “will to prevail.” The Assembly’s own attorney doesn’t appear enthusiastic, although he agrees on three out of 18 points discussed in regard to the lawsuit, saying those give the borough a “fair to good chance of success.”
The effort also won’t be inexpensive. The borough attorney has estimated $150,000 would be needed to cover the cost of preparing the lawsuit. The cost of proceeding would be added to that number.
Of course, should the borough prevail, it would mean millions of dollars saved locally. (It would increase the state’s education expenses significantly, however.) That’s after what likely would involve appeals and all other machinations and expenses involved in proceeding with a lawsuit.
The community needs to be aware of all the possibilities if it’s to support advancing this effort, and then expect the worst case scenarios. Some of those will come. Some won’t.
But a lawsuit will be a fight, and in most fights both sides get hit.
The wisdom of entering this one can be considered until the Assembly gathers to decide about funding the effort at its next meeting. That meeting is Oct. 21.
— Ketchikan Daily News,