The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted Tuesday to move forward with a project to build a $5.3 million multiuse emergency response center in Soldotna.
After hearing a presentation by the city of Kenai outlining how at least some of the agencies destined to occupy the new Soldotna center might instead utilize that city's PRISM building, the assembly voted 8-1 to approve Ordinance 2004-19-29 and accept a U.S. Department of Justice grant of $2.47 million for construction of the new response center project.
The ordinance also appropriated $1 million from the Central Emergency Services fund balance and $239,835 from the borough's general fund toward the project.
The new center eventually will house E-911 dispatch, Central Emergency Services administration and a borough Emergency Operations Center. Construction is expected to begin this spring.
The spending measure had been postponed from the Jan. 4 meeting in order to give the city of Kenai an opportunity to present information about the Kenai building, a structure already in existence, but which needs to be completed. The city of Kenai has applied for U.S. Homeland Security funds for that project.
Kenai Fire Chief Scott Walden said the city's presentation was not to be understood as an attempt to impede the borough's efforts toward the Soldotna center.
"We've never contested the fact that Central Emergency Services needs more space," he said. "We've never contested the fact that the 911 facility needs to move to a better space, nor that the Office of Emergency Management needs better quarters. That's very obvious."
Walden said the city was giving the presentation at the assembly's request to help the assembly make an informed decision regarding the Soldotna project and the possible viability of the Kenai alternative.
However, while the Kenai building would provide much of what might be needed, it had disadvantages, among them that it is too far from the Borough Building, and far from the Soldotna police station and CES facilities.
The possible usefulness of an alternative building wasn't the only concern expressed by members of the assembly over the $5.3 million project. Also of worry was the projected level of the borough's share of the overall cost, which preliminary estimates put near a $1.5 million ceiling. Exceeding that amount would require taking the project to the voters, which seriously could delay the project. According to borough estimates, a delay of a year could drive the overall cost up by as much as $700,000.
Assembly member Paul Fischer of Kasilof said he was concerned that possible change orders not uncommon during major construction projects might drive the price above the limit and wondered what would happen then.
Borough Attorney Colette Thompson said she wasn't aware of any precedent for that occurring on a borough project, but she said that if the building already were under construction, it might be too late to go back to the voters for approval.
Borough Capital Project Manager Walter Robson assured the assembly no project in his memory had ever exceeded the limit because of change orders. He also said that current cost estimates were based on preliminary and incomplete engineering. Of necessity, those estimates factored in a larger contingency than is likely to be needed once the final plans are written. Those plans should be ready in late winter.
Fischer also raised concerns about the federal grant money. The grant papers required that the chief law enforcement officer of the borough sign off on the grant request. However, as a second-class borough in Alaska, the borough has no police powers. Mayor Dale Bagley signed as the de facto senior law enforcement official.
Bonnie Golden, grants manager for the borough, said the U.S Department of Justice officials are fully aware the borough has no police powers and that the mayor would be the signatory. She also said that by passing the ordinance, the assembly delegated authority to the mayor to accept the federal grant and execute a grant agreement.
Assembly member Milli Martin of Diamond Ridge said she was confident that the borough would do the proper oversight on the project and that the project would stay within budget bounds.
"I am comfortable with this. I look at this need having this centrally located here in Soldotna makes sense. I'm also concerned about any further delays," she said.
Assembly member Chris Moss of Homer pointed out that if for some reason costs exceeded the appropriated amount, no more could be spent without further authority from the assembly. He also said change orders that might drive up the cost are avoidable.
"If it is well planned, there are no change orders," he said.
Assembly member Betty Glick of Kenai was the only member to vote against the ordinance. She said she fully recognized the need and didn't oppose the project eventually being built, but said she needed answers as to the final cost of the project, assurances the borough's monetary commitment wouldn't exceed the $1.5 million, and confirmation that the mayor, indeed, has the authority to sign the grant documents as a law enforcement official.
The assembly also heard from Bill Coghill of Mikunda-Cottrell and Company, the borough's auditing firm. Coghill told members the data from fiscal year 2004, which ran from July 1, 2003 through June 30, 2004, showed the borough had a good asset-to-debt ratio. Overall, he said, assets total some $464 million, while debt reaches just $119 million.
He said the borough finances "showed no material weaknesses," but rather that its balance sheet looked healthy.
In other business, the assembly:
n Passed resolutions 2005-009 and -010, authorizing Central Peninsula General Hospital to enter a pair of three-year leases for space.
n Passed Resolution 2005-011, approving its legislative capital priorities for 2005.
n Introduced Ordinance 2004-19-34, which would accept a $909,700 state grant for Keystone Drive road improvements and set a public hearing for Feb. 15.
n Introduced Ordinance 2004-03, which would amend borough code to require a filing fee for appeals to the Board of Equalization and set a public hearing for Feb. 15.
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