Culvert repair funding nixed

Assembly turns down Kenai Watershed Forum request

Posted: Friday, April 04, 2008

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday turned down a request for financial support by the Kenai Watershed Forum for its ongoing program of repairing damaged culverts blocking salmon streams.

The environmental agency had asked for $100,000, but the measure facilitating that request, Ordinance 2007-19-39, lost on a 4-5 vote. The majority raised concerns about the request going to a nonprofit and that it could become an annual budget item.

Assembly Milli Martin called for reconsideration of the ordinance at the April 15 meeting.

The measure had proposed using annual fish tax revenue received from the state to help fund the culvert repair effort. That revenue stream averages about $647,000 a year.

Assemblyman Gary Knopp of Kalifornsky said there was no dispute about whether the KWF's culvert work was necessary and productive. However, he opposed the ordinance.

"I'm one of the few who is reluctant give the public's money away to nonprofits," he said. "And in the future I wouldn't support continuation of it."

Assemblyman Ron Long of Seward noted that the ordinance did not include a description of how the grant agreement would be administered, and said he would like to see how much the borough's participation might leverage other funding and how many miles of streams were opened up over time.

Borough Mayor John Williams assured him that the administration would see to it that there would be accountability in the program.

Long voted to support the ordinance.

Assemblywoman Margaret Gilman of Kenai also said she supported the forum, but expressed similar sentiments to those of Knopp.

"I do have problems with governmental funds going to nonprofits, because as the assembly, we are responsible for being the keepers of public funds. As soon as it gets turned over to a nonprofits you have given up some of that financial responsibility," she said.

She said she would look more favorably on a request for funding for a specific culvert repair project coming directly from the forum, rather than the administration initiating a funding program.

Assemblywoman Milli Martin of Diamond Ridge said opening up more salmon habitat and enhancing fish survival was "a win-win" situation, and she noted the borough budget already supports several nonprofit organizations on an annual basis.

Indeed, the annual budgets commonly fund the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, the Economic Development District, the CARTS program, Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council, to name a few.

Williams told assembly members that while the final decision were theirs, it was his intention to propose appropriations to the watershed forum project in future budgets.

Assemblyman Paul Fischer, of Kasilof, said he had been prepared initially to support the ordinance.

"Until I heard the word 'entitlement,'" he said, adding that he opposed establishing an annual expenditure. "There is a lot of uncertainty here."

He worried that more nonprofits would come seeking funds from the borough.

Assemblyman Bill Smith of Homer said he viewed the agreement with the watershed forum as a contract for specific work, not unlike other contracts between the borough and the private sector. He noted that many of the culverts and roads were the responsibility of the borough, and that it would be far more expensive for the borough to rebuild them only using borough funds.

Engaging with a nonprofit to attack the problem "seems like a very responsible thing to do," Smith said.

Damaged culverts can block miles of habitat necessary for the health of juvenile salmon. According to Bonnie Golden, borough grants manager, studies have shown that juvenile fish that can migrate up and down small streams survive better in the ocean.

The watershed forum has identified more than 350 roads crossing salmon bearing streams. Half have been evaluated and more than 70 percent are hindering fish migration, Golden said in a memo to the assembly.

Urging support for the measure, Williams said maintaining the connectivity of the habitat used by salmon a key element of the borough's economy was critical.

"There are literally hundreds of miles of streams on this peninsula whose connectivity ... has been interrupted by damaged or destroyed culverts," he said.

Using fish tax money to enhance the streams, improve the runs, and ultimately increase the numbers of fish in the system, would boost the economy of the entire peninsula, he said.

"It could take literally years to do them (the culverts) all," he said, noting that a borough contribution to the effort could help speed up the program and perhaps leverage other funding.

When it came to a vote, assembly members Fischer, Knopp, Gilman, Grace Merkes of Sterling, and Gary Superman of Nikiski, voted no. Martin, Smith, Long and Pete Sprague, of Soldotna, supported the measure.

Hal Spence can be reached at

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