As the city of Kenai heads into budget planning for the next fiscal year, which begins in July, its newly hired city manager does not appear to be looking at too much of a transition period into his new role.
“I’m trying to get my arms around the budget right now,” said Rick Koch (pronounced “Cook”), on Tuesday.
He said his first look at the numbers showed an anticipated shortfall of $700,000, “but we won’t be going to the (city) council with that.”
A budget package is due to be presented by the city administration to council members April 5. Final publication of the budget is slated for June 23.
Koch, who officially moved into his new job Monday, has spent much of his career in construction management, and once owned his own construction business before becoming the public works director in Palmer in 2000.
A 1974 Service High School graduate, he initially went to college majoring in biology, but quickly discovered he liked construction better.
He worked for Reese Construction in Anchorage doing “whatever they told me to do dig this, shovel that, clean up this.”
He also worked as a draftsman for the state Department of Natural Resources during his senior year and eventually graduated from Boise State University with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering.
Well known in engineering circles around Alaska, Koch has done Outer Continental Shelf mapping work for the Beaufort Sea and Gulf of Alaska oil and gas lease sales, worked as a construction manager for the North Slope Borough’s Kuparuk Industrial Center and worked on some 30 Anchorage School District facility expansion projects including managing a $28 million asbestos abatement project at Bartlett High School the largest asbestos abatement project in the country at the time.
In 1984, Koch left the construction management business for a few years, homesteading off the Yentna River about 60 miles north of Anchorage on a parcel of landed owned by himself, his sister, and his 15-year-old son, Alex.
Three years after being issued the homestead, Koch was contacted by some consultants he knew who said the North Slope Borough was looking for an engineering manager.
He took the job and moved to Barrow to work with the capital improvement management department.
“When I got there, they were doing about $80 million in capital projects and they were at $400 million when I left (in 1993),” he said.
After operating Byerly and Koch Construction for a few years, doing civil engineering projects primarily on Alaska’s road system, Koch became Palmer’s public works director in 2000.
One of the largest projects he was involved with in that capacity was the infrastructure work for the newly opened regional hospital in Palmer.
“The job required 5 1/2 miles of water and sewer extensions along roads and through railroad right of ways and other engineering challenges,” he said.
Koch also was instrumental in the construction of a $40,000 square-foot ice arena in Palmer.
He said he was told about plans to close the Bonnie Cusack ice arena in Anchorage and received the OK from the Palmer City Council to invest in relatively new refrigeration, an ice grooming Zamboni and other equipment to be acquired from the owner.
Coupled with some grant funding and a bond proposition approved by Palmer voters, the new ice arena was built for $3.2 million.
“Through the regular process, it would have cost about $5 million,” he said.
In Kenai, Koch said he hopes to be a good city manager, “providing good customer service and maintaining aggressive budgets.”
He said the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) funding “is a big deal (for Kenai). It is for everybody.”
He also sees projected hikes in workmen’s compensation rates and significant increases in the cost of health insurance as being budget challenges, and said he, like others, is “keeping an eye on Juneau.”
“Hopefully we’ll see a good municipal grant program (from the state) this year,” he said.
For now, he said he is not planning any major changes as city manager.
“The community is going in a very positive direction,” he said.
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