Eagle River residents mull secession idea

Posted: Tuesday, August 07, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Old feelings of unfair treatment have revived the idea that Eagle River should secede from Anchorage.

The budding insurgency has been fueled, in part, by what many Eagle River residents took as an insult when Anchorage voters in April rejected a bond proposal to pay for a new high school in Eagle River.

The school vote prompted Rep. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, to begin quietly working on detaching Eagle River from the municipality.

''If we win the right to control our own destiny, we can build a new high school,'' Dyson wrote in a recent column in the Eagle River-area newspaper the Alaska Star.

Talk of secession rumbles up as regularly as the earth shakes. This time, Dyson has begun serious research: Is there a way to make it happen?

As it turns out, the effort to detach from an established municipal government is complex, time-consuming and has rarely been successful in Alaska's short history as a state.

For starters, there is the matter of who owns what.

Anchorage owns a major water treatment facility at Eklutna. The Anchorage landfill is near Eagle River's Hiland Road. Chugiak and Eagle River residents are responsible for a share of the entire city's bond debt as well as for debt in specific road or park service areas.

The Alaska Constitution favors a minimum number or local governments and says a borough must embrace areas with common interests.

''Obviously, Anchorage gets its drinking water from Eklutna. It dumps its garbage (in Eagle River). A lot of people live in Eagle River and work in Anchorage. There are a lot of interrelationships,'' said Dan Bockhorst, the staff person for the state's Local Boundary Commis-sion.

Eagle River would have to overcome the presumption that its interests are closely tied to the rest of Anchorage after 35 years of togetherness. Breakup advocates would also have to prove that the split is in the public interest and that the new government would be economically viable, Bockhorst said.

If the five-member Local Boundary Commission approved a new borough or city, Eagle River residents would vote on it and the Legislature would have a chance to veto it.

It's easy enough to get the commission to consider a case. Just 10 percent of registered voters in an area must sign petitions requesting it.

Dyson thinks many long-term residents still favor what he calls ''self-determination'' for Eagle River and Chugiak and the communities reaching to Eklutna.

Last week Dyson asked the Legislative Ethics Committee for guidance. The committee concluded that he can use his office and staff to ''further the discussion'' and advocate a position but can't use state money on a separation campaign.

Dyson said that after he gathers more facts, such as the property tax base required to support a new government, he plans to ''get the word out to folks'' and see what happens.

''We won't be able to sell this to the community if there's a significant tax increase,'' he said.

And selling the idea to the Local Boundary Commission could be even harder.

Since the 1960s, the commission has turned down North Pole and Salcha, both trying to detach from the Fairbanks North Star Borough and Nikiski and Tyonek, trying to get away from the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

Anchorage Assemblyman Dan Kendall of Eagle River says people are still angry about the vote against a new Eagle River high school. They don't want their existing high school, Chugiak, to get any bigger, more crowded and more impersonal. They want a new one.

But twice, Anchorage voters have turned down funding for the project. And Anchorage voters have regularly turned down parks and other bonds that must be approved areawide, under the municipal charter, but are to be paid back only by people who live in the Eagle River area.

''The perception is out there that the citizens of Anchorage don't want to vote for anything for Eagle River,'' Kendall said. He said he's always supported a separate borough or city for Eagle River.

State Sen. Randy Phillips of Eagle River said he might join up with Dyson at some point, but ''I think the timing's poor right now. I don't think people have reached their threshold of pain.''

Anchorage Mayor George Wuerch says he would be opposed to a split.

An area needs a strong commercial tax base to support city services, he said. Anchorage has less manufacturing and industry than it ideally should have, and Eagle River has even less.

''It's a bad idea,'' said Dick Traini, chairman of the Anchorage Assembly. Instead of losing a piece of Anchorage, he'd like to annex more land. ''I'd bring Whittier into the city and use it as our small boat harbor.''

Traini and Wuerch said city leaders could try harder to win public support for schools and parks in Eagle River.

But Dyson favors a separate government. He thinks it will take accountants and lawyers to make a convincing case for it and to determine the consequences.

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