Nikiski residents file to stop center

Posted: Tuesday, March 30, 2004

A group of Nikiski residents has filed proposed initiatives with the Kenai Peninsula Borough to limit the powers of the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area Board and halt plans to convert Nikiski Elementary School into a community center.

Three initiatives were filed with the borough clerk's office last Friday afternoon.

The first would limit the scope of the service area to recreation programs only, barring it from operating a meeting hall, providing food service or leasing out space to other organizations.

The second two, nearly identical initiatives would reduce the amount of money the service area board could appropriate without a citizen vote, bringing the figure down from $1.5 million to $500,000. One of the initiatives would apply the $500,000 appropriation limit to tax money as well as state and federal grants, while the other would make an exception for grants. Only one of the two initiatives will move forward, depending on a legal review and later decisions by initiative writers.

Mike McBride, one of the organizers of the initiative drive, said the purpose of the initiatives is to get taxpayers' opinions on plans for the community center. He said many community members asked the service area board to put the matter to a public vote but were ignored.

"People in the community are upset with the fact that their concerns have not been addressed," McBride said. "They started talking and realized that the only course of action available, if the representative form of government fails, is the initiative process."

The debate began about three years ago with a series of surveys asking Nikiski-area voters what they would like to see in their community. Karen Kester, director of recreation for the service area, said those surveys showed support for a community center specifically one offering recreation such as basketball, arts and crafts and a teen center. The service area already operates the Nikiski pool, an ice rink, hiking trails, baseball fields and a summer program for children.

Kester said the original plan was to build a facility, but plans changed after the service area board learned the Nikiski Elementary School facility soon would be available. The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education voted earlier this year to consolidate the North Peninsula elementary schools, moving all kindergarten through sixth-grade students to North Star Elementary School starting this fall.

"When it was announced the school would be closed, the service area board sent a letter to the school district saying we would be interested in occupying Nikiski Elementary if it were closed," Kester said. She said the district seemed to have no problem with the plan, but when the district announced it would vacate the building, the decision became the borough assembly's responsibility. The borough owns and maintains school buildings within the district.

"We went to the borough and said here's our plan," Kester said. She said the borough approved of the plan which would provide the service area with about three times as much space as a new building for the same cost and the focus of the community center planning committee changed.

Among the roadblocks to the service area taking over the building were differences in safety codes. Operating a community center requires different facility features than a school. Specifically, to get into the building, the service area would have to upgrade the building's fire suppression system and make structural changes to meet the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Those modifications became the first step in the service area's plan, and a proposed budget for the 2005 fiscal year included $850,000 to make the upgrades.

That figure, however, drew some complaints from Nikiski residents. McBride said community members turned out for both the second and third of three public meetings concerning the service area budget to discuss plans for the community center. The testimony was varied, he said. But, he said, almost everyone supported putting the matter before voters.

James Price, a service area board member, moved for a resolution that would put that matter on the October ballot, but the motion failed to draw a second. The service area budget, complete with the $850,000 appropriation, passed.

McBride said he has a number of concerns regarding the plan, not the least of which is the extent of services slated for the new community center. He said borough ordinance specifically provides the service area the power to provide recreational services and programs and to maintain facilities to do so. However, he said, the community center plans reach beyond those powers.

Kester, on the other hand, countered that the details of the center remain to be determined. She said the service area board originally wanted to occupy about two-thirds of the school building, but the borough turned over the entire facility. Some proposals have suggested leasing the remaining space to area nonprofit agencies because there is little other meeting space available in the Nikiski area. But, she said, "Who administers that one-third to one-fourth of the building in question is yet to be seen."

Kester also said the initiative proposed to limit the service area's powers depends on a relatively limited definition of "recreation."

"What is recreation?" she asked. "What I do for recreation isn't what you do for recreation. And what I do certainly isn't what teens do for recreation. If you look at a broad-based community, in many places the recreation center is the community center. It's a choice of title."

Likewise, she said, the service area already operates meeting rooms at the swimming pool and no one complains about those.

Another concern for McBride and other initiative supporters is the appropriation of money for the project. He said Nikiski residents voted years ago in favor of a bond to repair and upgrade the Nikiski swimming pool. That 10-year bond was retired July 1.

"Like other bonds, it was approved by voters, who said they supported the program and were willing to be taxed for it," he said. "But when the project is over, the tax levy should go away. In this case, the bond retired this fiscal year, but instead of rolling back the mill rate, the board set the mill rate at the same level."

Kester said the borough now requires service areas to have a fund balance, which means the service area would have had to continue its traditional 1 mill tax rate for another two years anyway. The appropriation may mean it takes a little longer to collect an adequate fund balance, but it would not change the amount residents pay in taxes immediately.

But McBride said he's concerned about extending the tax any longer than necessary.

"There are some economic factors the board did not listen to," he said, explaining that most of the service area's tax base comes from industries that do not have an indefinite lifespan.

"Those of us who live in the community and see what's going on realize the majority of the tax base for the service area is paid for by oil facilities," he said. "These are the facilities providing the majority of the tax base for the board. If these go away and all the good paying jobs go away, there would be a shift in the tax burden. That's a concern to me, and it should be a concern to any responsible taxpayer.

"We're not looking 50 years down the road and saying, 'This could happen.' These are imminent in the next two or three years. I question how fiscally prudent this is on the part of the board."

Kester, however, said such fears are unfounded.

"Nikiski has two-thirds of the assessed value of the borough within its service area," she said. "To say we could not afford anything more than that ... who's giving who wrong information?"

Ultimately, Kester said she believes Nikiski residents support the idea of a community center, and she said the Nikiski Elementary building is the best option.

"Without that building, there's no basketball, arts and crafts or teen center," she said. "And this community needs a teen center. Year after year after year, we've been asked to operate one."

She said she believes the initiative drive is the result of a handful of disgruntled residents.

"Obviously, some people aren't happy, and I'm not going to make them happy," she said. "I can't resolve the issue.

"As far as the initiatives, the public has every right to proceed."

McBride said he and his fellow initiative supporters plan to do just that.

The initiatives were submitted last week, each with almost 100 co-sponsors. Only 10 co-sponsors are necessary to move the process forward.

Borough clerk Linda Murphy said she will be responsible for checking the names of the co-sponsors to make sure they are qualified voters living within the service area. In addition, the initiatives are being reviewed by the borough attorney to determine their legality. The legal check has a two-week time limit.

If approved, the initiatives will move on to the petition-drive stage, which the clerk's office has another two weeks to prepare for. Initiative supporters then will have to collect signatures from 25 percent of the number of people who voted in the last election within the service area.

"That's not a large number of signatures," Murphy said, estimating each would need less than 200 supporters to make it on the October borough ballot.

Once on the ballot, McBride said the question will be up to residents and taxpayers, as he believes it should.

"If the majority supports it, then away we go," he said. "But if not, we shouldn't do it."

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