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Kenai borough rejects vote for Challenger Center support

Posted: Friday, August 08, 2003

KENAI (AP) The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly has turned down the possibility of local property tax support for the Challenger Learning Center.

The assembly voted 5-3 Wednesday against a ballot proposal that would have asked voters in October if they wanted to spend local taxes on the multimillion dollar educational complex in Kenai.

The center which recently added dormitories and other facilities is debt-free, but it's strapped for a steady supply of revenue to ensure operations continue.

Fees paid by school groups making simulated space missions pay only one-quarter of the cost of running the center, and operating funds from corporate sources and Congress have dried up.

Center officials had hoped to get funding through borough-wide property taxes. As an incentive, they had proposed letting students at borough schools attend center programs at no cost.

Assemblywoman Milli Martin of Diamond Ridge said she supported the center, but questioned whether it was a good idea to ask voters to fund it now when the assembly may have to go back to the ballot next year on other education issues.

''This is something unique, very different and very special,'' Martin 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.''

Other opponents of the proposal had said the center's funding is a local issue, not a borough-wide issue. And some expressed fears that adding it to the ballot could sink other tax issues that may come before voters in October.

Also being considered for the ballot were measures to increase property taxes to support Central Peninsula General Hospital and to create service areas for trails and flood control.

Originally, the intended mill rate for the Challenger Center would have been a borough-wide one-tenth mill, but discussions also included a two-tenths-mill tax. A tenth mill would cost the owner of a $100,000 house $10 a year.

Kenai Mayor John Williams, a member of the Challenger Center board and its former chair, said the assembly decision was regrettable.

''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 U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens' office, where interest in the assembly vote was high.

Williams told the Peninsula Clarion the Challenger Center was one of the Alaska senator's ''pet projects.'' Williams hinted that failure to back tax support for it might have implications for future funding for projects such as the Arctic Winter Games.

Stevens was not available for comment.

Williams said the center's board will have to reassess its options now.

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