Borough grapples with growing pains

Committee proposes possible solutions, including major expansion, remodeling

Posted: Tuesday, June 26, 2001

Dilbert would feel right at home.

Inside the Borough Building in Soldotna, many workers toil in a maze of modular cubicles that could have come straight out of the popular comic strip.

Crowding at the Kenai Peninsula Borough headquarters has reached a crisis level, according to a borough committee on space allocation.

"The committee strongly urges the assembly to take immediate action to relieve the overcrowded conditions in the borough administration building. It is the opinion of the committee that the situation has reached a critical stage and can no longer be ignored," members wrote in the conclusion of their final report, presented to the borough assembly last week.

The committee concluded that the building needs a 20,000-square-foot addition at an estimated cost of about $5 million. It recommended a ballot proposition asking voters to authorize bonds to pay for the construction and renovation. If approved, the bond would cost property owners about $10.80 per year on every $100,000 of assessed value in taxes for 20 years.

The current building has 38,000 square feet. It was constructed about 30 years ago and designed to serve the borough for 20 years. It houses the administrations for the borough and its school district.

The staff grew along with the borough population and, in recent years, employees have spilled out of the main building into portables and satellite facilities.

Borough Clerk Linda Murphy, a member of the committee, said cramped quarters have become a major hassle for staff and the public. Borough workers lack storage space or private areas to discuss sensitive problems with people who come in. Hallways are congested, access to fire exits difficult and ventilation poor. In the winter, people are too cold; in summer, too hot.

"I'm lucky. I have a window," she said. "If someone has a cold in the Borough Building, everyone catches it."

In 1998, then borough Mayor Mike Navarre convened a space allocation committee.

"The previous recommendation of the committee was an addition, in two phases, to the Borough Building," said Dave Spence, the school district's director of operations and a member of the current committee.

But the committee's recommendations were not enacted. Three years later, the new administration and new assembly have revived the process.

"The crowded conditions throughout the ... building have worsened over the past three years and continue to create a health and safety risk to borough staff and the public," the new report said. "In addition, they represent significant violations of fire and safety codes."

The committee had 10 members, two from the borough assembly, three from borough administration, one from the school board, one from the school administration and three from the general public. It began meeting in January.

"We kind of started from where we were in '98 and went from there," Murphy said.

The assembly's original mandate to the committee called for a report due in March locating about 10,000 square feet of office space at a cost not to exceed $3.5 million. In March, the deadline was extended to May and the target upgraded to 20,000 square feet.

The time the committee invested reflected its effort to be thorough, Murphy said.

"We wanted to make sure we had all the information to make the best decision," she said. "We didn't want to go to the assembly with anything less than a complete report."

Its preferred option, a major expansion and remodeling of the existing building, would allow continued consolidation of the borough and the school district.

In the event the assembly does not wish to proceed with general obligation bond funding, the committee recommended three alternative options.

n The first would build the recommended addition but fund it with a direct appropriation from the borough budget or through an internal bookkeeping maneuver to pay back the costs over time.

n The second would lease 20,000 square feet of office space and move either the borough or the school district into it.

n The third would involve working with a private developer to build a new facility, which would be leased to the borough. The committee noted a new building as "probably the most expensive option."

In the process of reaching its conclusions, the committee reviewed all the unoccupied, available commercial sites in the Kenai and Soldotna area to see if any were available for borough office space.

The Old Kenai Court House was crossed off because the state decided it will continue using the building. Others considered were the Blazy Mall, the old Soldotna Post Office (former site of Sears), the Kenai Supply Building, Gott-schalks, the Gary King site in Kenai, the former Pay 'n' Save site in the Peninsula Mall next to Safeway and the Big K Grocery building near Marydale on the Kenai Spur Highway in Soldotna.

The committee suggested that, if a long-term solution is not set in motion soon, the borough should use one of those buildings as an interim site.

The committee considered finding a temporary or new home for the school district administration, which would move about 75 people out of the Borough Building. The committee consensus was that it would be easier to move the school district than to split up borough officials, Spence said this spring.

Nonetheless, the school administration would prefer to stay in the same building as the rest of the borough, he said.

The next step is for the borough assembly to consider the committee's preferred option.

Assembly President Tim Navarre plans to introduce an ordinance at the July 10 assembly meeting to put the $5 million bond issue on the ballot. If the assembly enacts the ordinance, the matter will go to borough voters in the Oct. 2 municipal election, Murphy said.

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