Continuing its effort to reduce hazards posed by dead and dying spruce trees, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly accepted and appropriated a $929,000 federal grant Tuesday to be used to further its plan for managing the spruce bark beetle outbreak.
But the stream of federal dollars pumped into the program over the past five or six years may be ending, warned assembly member Chris Moss of Homer.
"We always say this may be the last amount of money, but I think this might be, and hopefully we can carry on," Moss said. Assembly member Paul Fischer of Kasilof wanted to know what would happen to the borough's spruce bark beetle mitigation program once the federal dollars stop.
"We've been told all along this was kind of a short-term project," he said. "Is there a drop-dead point?"
"When the money is gone, the program goes away," Mayor Dale Bagley said.
A spokesperson in Sen. Ted Stevens' office in Washington, D.C., however, said there is no reason to think any particular program would become any more or less in jeopardy than any other in future budgets. True, said Stevens' press secretary Courtney Schikora, the senator will not be chair of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee. But he is now during the writing of the federal FY 2005 budget, and he will remain chair emeritus after that, a position of considerable weight. Money for Alaska is not going to suddenly dry up, she said.
Schikora said Stevens remains "very concerned" about wildfire hazards across the state, "particularly on the Kenai Peninsula" because of the spruce bark beetle damage.
The hazardous tree removal program has sought to reduce the fire hazard around peninsula communities. It has cleared dead wood from rights-of-way and utility corridors, helped dispose of slash left over from wildfire mitigation projects and funded the Community Defensible Space Program pairing communities with fire-prevention projects.
Ordinance 2003-19-39, which passed unanimously, appropriated the lump-sum grant from the U.S. Forest Service to the borough, which has appropriated it to the Spruce Bark Beetle Hazard Tree Removal account.
The assembly also addressed other appropriation measures on Tuesday's agenda.
Ordinance 2003-19-40, which passed unanimously, appropriated $100,000 for site evaluation and schematic design of the new multi-use building for E-911 Dispatch, Central Emergency Services administration and the Borough Office of Emergency Management to be built on borough land on Wilson Lane, a block off the Sterling Highway in Soldotna.
Soldotna resident Fred Sturman questioned the use of the borough land for the emergency facility, suggesting the potentially valuable commercial property be sold and an alternative location be found for the project.
"This is too valuable a piece of property to be building this on," he said. "This is basically nothing but a bunch of telephones. ..."
Sturman said there is very little in the way of commercial property left in downtown Soldotna.
"All the property that we've got in this town that was good for commercial use the government has eaten up and taken it off the tax rolls," Sturman said.
Assembly member Grace Merkes of Sterling asked the administration whether the city of Soldotna had looked at the proposal and whether they supported the choice of location. Mayor Bagley said he knew Soldotna officials were aware of it, that a meeting with borough city managers was scheduled for Wednesday and that emergency communications issues would be on the table.
Assembly member Dan Chay of Kenai asked whether alternative locations had been considered.
Borough emergency manager David Gibbs said the reason the location was chosen was to take advantage of economies of scale. Central Emergency Services' new administration building is part of the project and the areas in which such a structure could be built are limited.
Jeff Tucker, CES fire chief, said a nearby microwave tower was put there to aid communications. Locating the new building elsewhere would require constructing a new tower, Tucker said.
In other business, the assembly:
Adopted Ordinance 2003-19-41, which also passed unanimously, increasing the fiscal year 2004 Road Service Area capital improvement project budget from $1.3 million to just over $1.74 million;
Adopted Ordinance 2003-19-45 appropriating a $7,500 Alaska Division of Homeland Security grant to help develop community emergency re-ponse teams;
Postponed until August final action on Ordinance 2004-05, which would revise procedures for appeals to the Board of Equalization;
Introduced Ordinance 2003-19-47, which would appropriate $585,000 from the South Peninsula Hospital Service Area fund balance to provide supplemental funding to cover operational losses at South Peninsula Hospital. A public hearing is set for May 18.
Passed Resolution 2004-041 authorizing a contract for construction of the Rocky Ridge Landfill to Criterion General Inc.;
Passed Resolution 2004-042, awarding the contract for phase II of the Central Peninsula Landfill expansion to Wolverine Supply Inc.; and
Passed Resolution 2004-044, lending the assembly's support to House Bill 396, a measure intended to require a fisheries management policy geared toward "maximum sustained yield."
The assembly voted 8-1 to support the bill, though some members expressed doubt HB 396, still languishing in the House Fisheries Committee, will ever reach the House floor for a vote. Assembly member Chris Moss said he has doubts the bill would accomplish what it purports to intend a biology-based decision-making process as opposed to a politically-based one.
Nevertheless, he said it is a step in the right direction. Assembly President Pete Sprague of Soldotna voted no based on his opinion that the assembly ought to avoid weighing in on fish policy issues in general.
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