Despite appeals from Central Emergency Service Area and borough administration officials, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly voted Tuesday not to reimburse CES the $1 million its capital project fund contributed back in 2004 toward building a new emergency center in Soldotna.
Arguments resulting in the 3-6 vote essentially boiled down to the request being far too late. The new Emergency Response Center on Wilson Lane is nearing completion. The $1 million already has been spent.
The debate is not over. Assembly member Grace Merkes has called for reconsideration at the June 6 meeting. Tim Navarre, Mayor John Williams’ chief of staff, said the administration would be working during the interim to convince enough assembly members to change their vote and reverse the outcome.
In November 2004, the CES board approved providing $1 million to help fund construction of the Emergency Response Center. That project also got funding from almost $2.5 million in grants and $239,835 from the borough’s general fund.
When first approved by the assembly during Mayor Dale Bagley’s administration, CES administrative offices and training center were expected to share space in the building with E-911 Dispatch and the borough’s Office of Emergency Management.
But in January of this year, a mostly new CES board voted to seek assembly approval to opt out of the new building in favor of remaining in and eventually remodeling its current office spaces in Station 1 in Soldotna. They asked for their $1 million back to make the money available for operating the service area voters had elected to expand to include Funny River and Kasilof.
Soon after taking office late last year, Williams agreed that conditions had changed in the three years since a new emergency operations center project was first proposed and it made economic sense to return the money to CES. Williams said the Spruce Bark Beetle Mitigation Program would move into the rooms meant for CES and pay the borough the $3,600 a month it now pays to lease privately owned facilities.
Assembly members appeared conflicted over competing arguments for and against the CES request.
Assembly member Deb Germano, of Homer, said she supported return of the money because the borough could lease the space to other entities, but noted she was concerned about the added cost of serving the Kasilof and Funny River additions.
In recent memos to the assembly, CES board chair Len Malmquist and vice chair Jim Chambers indicated that some board members in 2004 might actually have been less than enthusiastic about committing $1 million of service area funds to the project, but because of a reluctance to run counter the Bagley administration desires, went along anyway.
Noting those comments, assembly member Dan Chay, of Kenai, opposed reimbursement, in part because he wanted to send a symbolic message to all service area boards that the assembly wanted to hear what they were thinking.
“I hope that we are not in the business of avoiding conflict,” he said. “I want to encourage the service area boards to speak their minds and be straightforward and forthright, because otherwise we are acting in a vacuum. We need to be hard on the problem and easy on each other.”
Pete Sprague, assembly member from Soldotna, said he’d been wrestling with the issues and had wanted to address better some of the budget implications of returning the $1 million.
“The more I think about it the more difficult the decision becomes,” he acknowledged, adding that he recognized the service area’s size had been greatly expanded, but noted it was the voters who approved that. He said he was “really concerned” about the late date of the reimbursement request, saying he’d never heard any negative comments about the project from the board members until recently.
“This ordinance really leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” said Gary Superman, of Nikiski. “I’ll tell you why. It’s the pretense that there isn’t any continuity to this borough government, that when administrations flip, everything flips along with it. That is the wrong attitude to have.”
He said that when the assembly makes commitments, it has to stick by them.
“It is unfortunate that the board did not come forward, did not address any suggestions prior to this,” he said, adding that while he did not want to place any undue burden on CES, he wanted “his pound of flesh.” He said the assembly was led into the project under the pretense that CES was willing to come in.
“Now they are backing out,” he said.
Assembly member Margaret Gilman, of Kenai, echoed her colleagues, saying the elected service area boards were under an obligation to deliver correct information about their concerns to the assembly.
Voting for reimbursement were assembly members Merkes, Germano and Milli Martin, of Diamond Ridge. President Ron Long, of Seward, Paul Fischer, of Kasilof, Superman, Gilman, Chay and Sprague opposed the motion.
During public comments, CES board member Mark Osterman said the service area had a contingency plan in case it did not get the $1 million back, but said it might involve altering some equipment replacement schedules, which conceivably might impact service area insurance rates.
Regarding assembly comments about changes from one administration to another, Mayor Williams said Wednesday that that was a fact of life in a democracy.
“Democracy is a shifting paradigm,” he said. “Policies change.”
CES’ request for reimbursement was reasonable and fiscally sound, Williams said. Further, he said the decision about who ultimately occupies space in the new building was a management decision, something the assembly failed to take into consideration.
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