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Constitutionality of service area bill debated

Posted: Tuesday, February 06, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- Supporters and opponents of a bill giving more power to residents of service areas that provide road and fire service debated the measure's constitutionality Monday.

House Bill 13 would prevent municipal governments from changing the boundaries of road and fire service areas unless a majority of residents in each area affected voted for the change.

Jeff Bush, deputy commissioner of the state Department of Community and Economic Development, told the House Judiciary Committee the measure is unconstitutional because it takes too much power away from local governments.

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 the service areas may have advisory boards, the larger borough assembly sets their budgets and tax rates and can consolidate, expand or otherwise alter their boundaries.

The state must demonstrate an overriding state interest to justify putting limits on borough governments, Bush said, and that hasn't been demonstrated in this case.

One of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention, Vic Fischer, agreed.

''I would like to say unequivocally House Bill 13 flies directly in the face of Alaska's constitution,'' Fischer said. ''The letter and intent of the local government articles are very clear.''

Local governments are to exercise maximum self-governance and their powers are to be construed liberally, he said.

But Tamara Cook, director of Legislative Legal Services, said the constitution gives an assembly the power to establish, alter or abolish service areas subject to the provisions of law or charter.

That leads her to believe a law passed by the Legislature could appropriately limit an assembly's power over service areas. She pointed to court cases she said support that argument.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, argues the measure provides true local control by requiring a vote of people in individual service areas.

Residents in his Anchorage Hillside district fear the Municipality of Anchorage may consolidate road service areas, which could result in residents there paying higher taxes for a lower level of service, Bunde said.

Gail Dial, a supervisor in the Chugiak-Eagle River Service Area, said her community doesn't want to be lumped in with the rest of Anchorage either. She argued the smaller community is best able to take care of its mix of mountain, semi-rural and urban roads.

''We are widely separated from the core city,'' Dial said.

Opponents said the bill would let people of a relatively small area stand in the way of the greater good of a municipality.

''What this bill does is provide for a minority veto and prohibits majority rule,'' Anchorage Municipal Attorney William Greene said.

Bunde eliminated a section of the bill that had restricted it to the Anchorage, the Fairbanks North Star Borough and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. It now applies to service areas throughout the state.

The Judiciary Committee took no action on the bill Monday.



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