Service area protection bill passes House

Posted: Wednesday, March 14, 2001

JUNEAU (AP) -- The state House passed a bill Tuesday that would keep local governments from changing the boundaries of road and fire service areas without a vote of the people within them.

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Con Bunde, R-Anchorage, said House Bill 13 will let residents of service areas control their own fate. His Anchorage Hillside constituents are happy with the service they receive now through their road service areas and fear if they were forced into a merger, they could wind up paying more taxes for less service.

Opponents of the bill said it takes power away from local governments, could lead to inefficiencies and may be unconstitutional. Gov. Tony Knowles vetoed a similar bill last year.

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 they may have advisory boards, their budgets and their tax rates must be approved by the larger borough assembly. Under current law, the borough assembly can change their boundaries.

The bill would require a majority of residents in each area affected by a proposed service area boundary change to vote in favor of it. Also, if service areas are combined, it would let residents in the new service area continue to pay different tax rates based on the area they were in before.

''Someone with improved roads doesn't have to pay for someone in an adjoining district to have roads brought up to standard,'' Bunde said.

Opponents said a borough assembly is the appropriate group to make a decision about what is best for all residents of a borough, and House Bill 13 could prevent the assembly from doing that.

''A tiny group could have a lot of control,'' said Rep. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak. ''This could lead to tyranny of the minority.''

Rep. John Davies, D-Fairbanks, said the bill could lead to less efficient government by blocking the mergers of multiple small service areas with relatively high administrative costs.

Supporters countered that said service areas are sometimes more efficient than centralized service, and that efficiency needs to be balanced against individual freedom, anyway. Rep. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, said residents of his district were told they would be able to retain local control when they agreed to city and borough of Anchorage unification in the 1970s.

Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she fears the bill might be unconstitutional because the constitution calls for the state to demonstrate a clear overriding interest before it takes power away from home-rule borough governments.

However, Rep. Norm Rokeberg, R-Anchorage, said the Judiciary Committee heard another interpretation that indicates the bill would pass constitutional muster.

The bill passed the House 29-9. Knowles Press Secretary Bob King wouldn't say whether the governor would veto it again if it passes the Senate, but King said in its current form the administration had many of the same concerns it did with the bill last year.

Senate President Rick Halford, R-Chugiak, is sponsoring a similar bill in the Senate.

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