Nikiski residents are likely to face choices at the ballot box this fall that have everything to do with the quality of life the community will offer in the future, assembly member Gary Superman said at the tail end of Tuesday's Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting.
But Superman also said it was evident the community is divided.
"There are some people who want to see the community built," he said. "There is another group of people who want to see, I guess, the community stagnant."
The assembly heard testimony on Ordinance 2004-10, a ballot measure that, if approved by voters at the Oct. 5 municipal election, would establish the Nikiski Law Enforcement Service Area and create a five-member board to determine how police services could be brought to the community.
Adding to a likely ballot mix are a pair of initiatives launched last week by a group of Nikiski residents who are questioning the viability of a proposal by the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area to acquire the unused Nikiski Elementary School building as a future community center.
The current proposed borough budget includes $815,000 for the service area. Initiative backers want the assembly to delay actual expenditure of that money on necessary school building fire safety upgrades until after voters have spoken in October.
The two initiatives would expressly limit the current authority of the service area board, including prohibiting spending taxpayer money on a building conversion project and also cut the amount of money the board could spend without a vote of the public from the current $1.5 million (typical of other service areas), to just $500,000.
Meanwhile, the Nikiski Fire Service Area is expected to recommend soon another ballot measure seeking voter approval to spend more than $1.76 million to build a third fire station in the Escape Route-Hold Lamplight Road area, a move that would improve fire safety and lower home insurance rates. The service area already owns land for the project and has completed preliminary design work. The service area is expected to hold another public hearing June 9 before deciding if the idea should be moved to the fall ballot.
To some who spoke Tuesday, all these ideas add up to one thing increased property taxes.
Speaking during the public hearing on the proposed law enforcement service area, Nikiski resident Vicki Pate said a large percentage of Alaskans in general and members of her Nikiski community, in particular, were "addicted to opium," raising eyebrows around the room. She then made her meaning clear.
"Now opium is a heavy narcotic," she said. "It is strongly addictive." Users, she said, "think they are capable of great enterprises but lose track of reality. I'm talking about (spending) O-P-M other peoples' money."
She said she would work to defeat the law enforcement service area proposal but said it should go to the public for a vote. She predicted that the majority of Nikiski residents would think likewise and prevail, and "through the tough love of the ballot box" help those in favor of spending more money "get into rehabilitation."
Pate also is the prime sponsor of the two initiatives seeking to limit the powers of the KPRSA.
Dave Machado of North Kenai said he was concerned about mill rates, now among the highest in the borough. He said the area already has police protection through the Alaska State Troopers. Noting the recent spate of burglaries that have generated the push for better policing, he said that since pressure had been put on the troopers, they have been making more patrols up the North Road.
"We do not need permanent, full-time troopers," he said.
Audrey Johnson of Nikiski, a member of the Nikiski Community Council and chair of a public safety committee, said there is support for the new law enforcement service area.
"Right now we get trooper support when we whine, when we cry," she said, adding she is glad the issue is going to a public vote.
Sherry Heath of Nikiski said she is a bus driver and often has observed dangerous driving behavior by people on the Kenai Spur Highway. She warned that unless something is done, that behavior will someday result in injury or death.
"People know there are no troopers out there. They know what they can get away with," she said. "Please help us get some kind of protection out there."
When testimony turned to the first of two hearings on the proposed $57.2 million general fund budget measure, Ordinance 2004-19, discussion centered mostly on the proposed $815,000 appropriation to the NPRSA.
Pate said she began collecting signatures Thursday on the two initiatives to place limits on the NPRSA, and already had collected 176 on each, far more than the 144 needed to assure the issues went on the ballot. She urged the assembly to make expenditure of the money contingent on the outcome of an Oct. 5 regular election ballot measure.
However, if the assembly was prepared to appropriate the funds without that proviso, she said she would turn in the signatures soon enough to force a special election prior to the scheduled Sept. 1 date on which the borough is set to turn the school building over to the recreational service area.
Mike Peek of Nikiski said he did not believe the borough would permit the building to sit empty, an invitation to vandalism. He suggested a kind of compromise in which the borough would spend the money to retrofit the building with a sprinkler system and handicapped-accessible restrooms in anticipation of a favorable vote by Nikiski residents.
If that occurred, the NPRSA could reimburse the borough for the construction costs. If not, the building would be ready for other uses, either again as a school or possible as an office for borough employees. Either way, he said, the retrofit would be required.
Others were not supportive. Machado said the project was "being shoved down our throats."
In his comments at the end of the meeting, Superman said the community center idea was not a new one, but rather a dream a long time in the making. He said the board had acted responsibly in moving forward when the opportunity to acquire the abandoned school building arose.
"Let's be rational here," he said. "Where else are you going to get a building of that size and for that kind of utilization for that kind of money?"
Referring to comments heard during testimony about how Nikiski featured an eclectic mix of lifestyles that might find a shack built next to an expensive home, Superman it was not in his mind to let "shantytown" take over.
"So what do you do to stop the degradation of a community? You have to have folks who are proactive to work toward building community. These folks (the NPRSA board) are not out to do the 'O-P-M' thing," he said.
He added that he has been a Nikiski resident for a long time, and every penny he's invested is in the community.
"What I see is us going backward," he warned.
Following the meeting, Pate said she is not convinced a majority of residents actually support the school acquisition. A vote, she said, would settle the issue once and for all.
She also noted that postponing expending money until after Oct. 5 would amount to about a six-week delay at most. She said she found it hard to understand the opposition to such a short pause.
Supporters of a fall vote on the community center idea have noted Nikiski's changing tax base, now heavily reliant on assessments on the oil and gas industry. If the community moves forward with the community center and other projects and then loses some of that industrial tax base, homeowners would find their taxes increasing.
The assembly made no decisions on the Nikiski Law Enforcement Service Area measure or on the proposed fiscal year 2005 budget Tuesday. Further hearings on each are scheduled for June 1.
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