Service area bill would put limits on local government

Posted: Friday, January 26, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- A legislative committee debated a bill Thursday that would keep local governments from changing the boundaries of service areas that provide road work and fire protection without a vote of the people in those areas.

The measure is similar to a bill Gov. Tony Knowles vetoed last year.

Its sponsor, Rep. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, told the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee that House Bill 13 provides more power to the people. Opponents, including the Knowles administration, said it takes power away from local governments and may be unconstitutional.

Service areas are areas within a borough in which residents pay taxes for a particular service, such as road plowing, firefighting or parks and recreation. Although service areas have advisory boards, their budgets and tax rates must be approved by the larger borough assembly.

At issue is whether an assembly can consolidate, expand or otherwise alter the boundaries of road and fire service areas without a vote of the people within them. Under current state law, the assembly can.

Bunde wants to change that, so that a majority of voters in each area affected would have to approve a change in boundaries. The bill would also let service areas that vote to merge keep the mill rate they had before consolidating.

''I would call it a good government bill,'' Bunde said. ''It's certainly smaller government and more power to the people.''

Jeff Bush, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Community and Economic Development, said the measure is a bad government bill that runs counter to Alaska's constitution.

The constitution calls for the state to place limits on home-rule municipalities only when there is a clearly overriding state interest, according to a department position paper. In addition, the bill puts a limit on home-rule municipal governments, while exempting other municipalities that were intended to be less powerful under Alaska law.

Representatives of the Municipality of Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Alaska Municipal League also testified against the bill.

Rep. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, who is co-chairman of the Community and Regional Affairs Committee, said he too opposes it. As a former Anchorage assembly member, he believes being able to combine service areas there would provide economies of scale that would lead to lower costs citywide for road maintenance.

Others, however, argue the road service areas operate more efficiently as they are.

''We have much better service in our road service areas than the city of Fairbanks does,'' said Randy Frank, a road service area commissioner in the Fairbanks North Star Borough.

''Because it's smaller, more local, government if the service isn't responsive to the people's needs, they pick up the phone, talk to the local road service area representative and they get their problems resolved very quickly,'' Bunde said. ''It's smaller and closer to the consumer.''

Supporters of the bill said service areas let residents decide what level of service they want to pay for, and if they want just the bare minimum they shouldn't be forced into a larger service area where they pay more for work they don't want.

The bill is also about money, although Bunde said that's a secondary issue. In service areas with high property values, a relatively low tax rate can generate enough money to pay for road work. In areas with lower property values, the tax rate must be much higher to pay for the same level of work.

Residents fear their tax rates will go up, but service won't if the municipality consolidates their service area with another, Bunde said.

''The municipality would like to have the power over local road service areas so they can convert them to cash cows,'' Bunde said.

The bill comes back before the Community and Regional Affairs Committee Tuesday. Meyer said he will probably let the bill move from his committee despite his personal opposition.

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