The Challenger Learning Center of Alaska will have to find a source of operating funds somewhere besides the value of property owned by borough residents following a vote Wednesday morning by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.
The assembly, meeting Wednes-day after failing to complete its work Tuesday night, defeated a resolution to place a measure on the Oct. 7 municipal ballot asking voters to support the center with a property tax.
Tuesday night, the assembly gave a hint of what was to come when it defeated Ordinance 2003-32 that initially had been intended as the vehicle for placing the issue before voters seeking the authority to provide funding to the Kenai facility through a property tax. It also contained language making appropriate changes in the borough code.
Ordinance 2003-32 was to have been introduced at the July 8 regular meeting but was postponed until Tuesday, when the assembly ran up against its midnight deadline.
The delay left too little time for the ordinance to wend its way through the public hearing process and still beat the deadline for inclusion on the Oct. 7 ballot.
Instead, Resolution 2003-087 was introduced so the assembly could place the issue on the ballot in time. Resolutions do not require a formal public hearing process. Ordinance 2003-32 was still required in order to affect the necessary changes to the code, which were not as time sensitive.
A lengthy discussion involved unsuccessful attempts to include the Alaska SeaLife Center and other 501 (c) nonprofit corporations in the array of possible tax revenue recipients, and to up the proposed one-tenth-mill tax to two-tenths mill.
But when all was said and done, five of the eight assembly members present voted "no" on the resolution, defeating the move to send the measure to the ballot.
Kenai Mayor John Williams, a member of the Challenger Center board and its former chair, said the assembly decision was regrettable and might come back to haunt them.
"I'm afraid the issue does have some very serious ramifications that probably will be forthcoming here in the near future," he said, adding that he had been on the phone that morning with Sen. Ted Stevens' office, where interest in the assembly vote was high.
"I'm rather reluctant to make the next call," he said, adding he was concerned about "major outfall" that might result from the vote.
In comments to the Peninsula Clarion, Williams said the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska was one of Stevens' "pet projects," and Williams hinted that failure to back the Challenger Center by permitting a public vote on a supportive tax might have implications for future funding for things such as the Arctic Winter Games. He did not elaborate.
Stevens was not available for comment Wednesday afternoon.
The multimillion dollar educational complex, which recently added dormitories and other facilities, currently is debt-free. However, though the bricks and mortar are in place, the center is strapped for a steady supply of revenue to ensure continued operation. Center officials had hoped to get funding from borough property owners. As an incentive, students at Kenai Peninsula Borough schools were to have been allowed to attend center programs at no cost.
Supporting the resolution to place the issue before the voters were John Davis of Kenai, Betty Glick of Kenai and assembly President Pete Sprague of Soldotna.
Those opposed included Gary Superman of Nikiski, Paul Fisher of Kasilof, Ron Long of Seward, Milli Martin of Diamond Ridge and Chris Moss of Homer. Assembly member Grace Merkes of Sterling was absent, though she had voted Tuesday night to defeat the accompanying ordinance.
Some members, like Moss, had expressed the view earlier that the Challenger Center was a local issue, not a boroughwide tax issue. Wednesday, Moss noted that conspicuously absent were supporting comments from the borough school district, the entity most involved in education on the peninsula.
Moss and others remarked that voters might decide to oppose all tax measures if given a lengthy list of projects seeking property tax revenue. Also being considered for the ballot were measures to increase property taxes in support of Central Peninsula General Hospital and creation of service areas for trails and flood control.
Originally, the intended mill rate for the Challenger Center would have been a boroughwide one-tenth mill, but discussion also included the possibility of a two-tenth-mill tax. A tenth mill would have cost the owner of a $100,000 home $10 a year.
Martin said she had mixed emotions. She said she had been to the center and supported what is offered to school children through its programs.
"This is something unique, very different and very special," she said. "On the other hand ... we do have some very serious crises before us for the school district, and I foresee that we are going to be having to go to the voters in order to preserve our educational system in light of the declining revenues in the state."
She questioned whether it was advantageous to go to the voters now seeking funding when the borough may well have to go back to the ballot next year on other education issues.
In noting his own opposition Wednesday, Superman said that while the tax hit might be small for an individual owner, that tax liability was greater for owners of businesses, who also would pay the property tax.
With the notion of a fall ballot measure now dead in the water, the Challenger Center's board of directors will have to reassess its options, Williams told the Clarion. He said he would be meeting with the board soon.
One possibility would be a petition drive, possibly leading to a special election later or a regular ballot measure next year. However, Williams said that avenue had not been seriously discussed.
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