The Kenai Peninsula Borough assembly reversed itself Tuesday and decided the nonprofit Kenai Watershed Forum's program of rebuilding damaged culverts and reopening habitat to salmon is worth a contribution of $100,000.
Two weeks ago, the assembly turned down the appropriation by a one-vote margin. Assemblywoman Milli Martin, of Diamond Ridge, called for reconsideration. After bringing Ordinance 2007-19-39 back to the table, four of the five who had voted no on April 1 changed their minds.
The KWF program has completed culvert reconstruction projects at the rate of one or two a year since 2002. But there are scores of damaged stream crossings that have effectively blocked salmon „ especially juveniles „ from access to large tracts of habitat across the Kenai Peninsula.
The nonprofit corporation has financed those projects through donations and grants. This year, Mayor John Williams approached the group offering borough help. According to the group, there are about 20 culverts under borough-maintained roads in critical need of repair.
Financing restoration projects strictly using borough funds would be very costly, the mayor has said. With the $100,000, the KWF could not only finance projects, but more importantly, leverage grants from other organizations whose criteria require matching funds.
Thus, KWF could turn the borough's $100,000 into far more cash, and therefore further the culvert repair effort.
On April 1, several members said they backed the KWF effort, but felt uncomfortable turning borough tax dollars over to the nonprofit, despite the fact that past budgets have funded other nonprofits.
There were several reasons why four members switched sides on reconsideration, one of them the fact the money was a borough offer.
"Funding was not requested by the Watershed Forum, but (offered) by Mayor Williams," Martin said. "I believe that we owe it to the fishing industry „ all of it „ to take another look at this proposal."
Assemblyman Gary Superman, of Nikiski, said he didn't change his vote very often, but this was one of those times. A conversation with KWF Director Robert Ruffner helped, he said. So did the budget presentation earlier in the meeting.
"After our budget presentation, I'm wondering where we're going to get monies in the future to do the things that really need to be done in this borough," he said, adding that most of the money is going to be going to schools. "I see this, basically, as a mechanism for us to really save money, to do some needed projects on culverts on borough roads."
The Watershed Forum, he noted, has access to money for culvert repairs unavailable to the borough.
"Even though we're fairly flush in our budget, I think we should take some presents where we're able, and this is one of them," he said.
Assemblywoman Margaret Gilman, of Kenai, said she'd spoken against the appropriation on April 1 precisely because it had been the administration offering the money. She said it was still a problem for her that the administration intends to recommend appropriations in future budgets, but that she, too, had changed her mind and was willing to go along with the idea for this year.
"What I'm looking for at the end of that year is a full report in terms of what culverts were fixed (and) what money was able to be leveraged as a result of the borough commitment," she said.
Assemblyman Paul Fischer, of Kasilof, wanted assurances that the borough funds would not be spent if it did not leverage other grant money.
"We need to know exactly where the money went," he said.
Nevertheless, Fischer also changed his mind and voted for the appropriation.
Williams said a report could be provided to the assembly.
Assembly President Grace Merkes, of Sterling, said she, too, wasn't one to back down easily.
"Personally, I think it is a good thing the Watershed Forum can get more leverage for what we need to improve our culverts and for the fish to run through the culverts," she said, adding, however, that she wasn't in support of making it an annual appropriation.
When it came to a vote, the assembly approved the $100,000 appropriation by an 8-1 vote. Only Assemblyman Gary Knopp, of Kalifornsky, stuck by his original no vote.
"There's no disputing the Watershed Forum does a good job and what they do is needed," he said. "But I think it is bad public policy to be giving public dollars to nonprofits and the funding of nonprofits."
Assemblyman Ron Long, of Seward, a supporter two weeks ago, reminded his colleagues that the money would not be paying the salaries of KWF employees, but would strictly be used for culvert projects and to leverage other funds.
Hal Spence can be reached at email@example.com.
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