Assembly hopes D.C. trip yields money

Peninsula representatives lobby Alaska delegation for support

Posted: Friday, March 24, 2006

Erosion, funding for capital projects, environmental cleanup and other borough federal priorities were among the locally important topics three members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly discussed with Alaska’s congressional delegation during a recent trip to the nation’s capital.

Traveling to Washington, D.C., for a convention of the National Association of Counties (NACO) and to visit Capitol Hill were Assembly President Ron Long, of Seward, and members Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, and Margaret Gilman, of Kenai.

Meeting face to face with Sens. Ted Stevens and Lisa Murkowksi and Rep. Don Young, or their staffers, is important to keep them apprised of affairs on the peninsula, Long said. But it’s not easy to quantify exactly what such visits produce, at least not immediately.

“I mean, you never come back with a sack of unmarked bills,” he joked during an interview Tuesday.

Their visit with Stevens included discussion of Kenai River Center projects including erosion control and facilities expansion, Long said. The borough is seeking $900,000 in continued funding for research and related activities.

There is another request for $1 million to $1.5 million per year for five years for an erosion study of the western Kenai Peninsula. There may be some hope for federal dollars toward those projects, Long said.

Also discussed was what to do with $5 million earmarked for a Funny River Bridge project that appears to be going nowhere. Long said Stevens indicated there might be a way to channel that money toward other bridge projects.

The Sterling ZipMart gasoline leak was also a topic of discussion. The borough is asking for $2 million for response and cleanup activities.

Gilman said there was some confusion among state and federal authorities over cleanup progress.

“It is my recollection that the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) thought another agency was taking care of the problem, or that it has been taken care of. It made apparent the usefulness of having assembly members in their offices,” Gilman said.

The leak came to light in 2001. Cleanup continues, as does litigation by surrounding property owners.

“Something has failed in the communication’s stream,” Long said, adding it is important to ensure that the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation and federal agencies “are talking to each other.”

Rep. Don Young told the assembly members getting so-called PILT payments approved continues to be a political challenge. PILT stands for payment in lieu of taxes and represents money paid by federal agencies to local governments in place of property taxes. Since 1995, Congress has not appropriated more than two-thirds the amount authorize by the PILT act, leaving local taxpayers to subsidize public services on public land.

“There is little federal land (requiring such payments) in the East where there are a lot of House members,” Long said.

“Another perception problem that is killing us back there is the Alaska Permanent Fund,” Long said. “People there think, ‘Why should we fund anything in Alaska?’”

It has been suggested that the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp. should begin investing in Alaska projects.

“I think that’s a dangerous way to go,” Long said.

Long did say he could support investment in a natural gas bullet line from the North Slope to the Kenai Peninsula, but only if that project proved economically feasible.

Also discussed with Young was the borough’s request for $1 million to equip eight district schools with an arsenic removal and water treatment system needed to comply with newer and stricter federal standards. Those schools are Cooper Landing, McNeil Canyon Elementary, Nikiski Elementary, Nikiski Middle-High School, Nikiski North Star Elementary, Skyview High School, Sterling Elementary and Tustumena Elementary.

The borough has developed a plan for addressing the arsenic problem at an average cost of $144,000 per school.

It may be awhile before the peninsula sees direct results coming out of its federal priority list. The federal budget is not finalized until October.

“We never really know until the fall how things will shake out,” Sprague said.

Still, the trip east was worthwhile, the assembly members said. Sprague is a member of NACO’s Western Interstate Region Board of Directors.

“We did secure the 2007 annual conference (Western Region) in Fairbanks,” he said. “That will bring some 400 or 500 people to Alaska. That will certainly help in efforts advocating development — of ANWR especially.”

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