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Sign raises code debate

Posted: Wednesday, September 29, 2004

A sign placed on a large reader board in front of Nikiski Elementary School by the director of the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area drew a formal complaint from Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly District 7 candidate James Price, who alleged Tuesday that its message violated the borough code banning the use of public money and facilities to influence the outcome of a ballot proposition.

The sign read, "THE NPRSA BOARD SAYS NO TAX INCREASE."

Service Area Director Karen Kester said the sign was meant to convey the message that recent actions of the service area board would not increase property taxes. She said it was meant to be informative, not influential.

The sign was removed Tuesday afternoon.

In a letter early Tuesday to borough Mayor Dale Bagley and borough attorney Colette Thompson, Price demanded the immediate removal of the sign and asked Bagley to "take appropriate action" to insure Kester "does not continue to violate borough code."

That code prohibits the use of "public moneys, or facilities, equipment or supplies purchased with public moneys, and services of public employees in kind" to promote ballot propositions.

In a separate letter to the Clarion, Price took issue with what he called Kester's "blatant violations of borough code and creative interpretation used to violate the rules" and said he was considering legal remedies.

He also said Kester's message was incomplete and ought to have been followed by a qualifier regarding a now paid-off bond approved by voters several years ago to pay for repairs and renovations to the Nikiski swimming pool.

The service area already has retired the pool repair bond debt. Now, according to Price, Kester and a majority of the NPRSA board want to continue the higher mill rate in order to fund a new community center.

Price, a member of the NPRSA board himself, said he addressed his concerns to Kester at Monday's service area board meeting.

"She claims that her sign display was a response to repeated questions she has received on the phone and was not intended to influence the election," Price said. "This excuse is frivolous and without merit."

Price added that Kester publicly informed the board she had gotten authorization to place the sign from borough attorney Thompson.

Tuesday, Thompson said Kester had not sought permission and that none had been given.

"She did not ask me," Thompson said Tuesday, adding, "Karen called and apologized for the mistake."

In an interview late Tuesday, Kester said that since August when a set of ballot propositions were added to the Oct. 5 municipal ballot for the service area, she has dealt with questions from the public about whether service area taxes were or had already gone up. She thought it was necessary to let people know the board had not increased taxes.

"The easiest way to deal with it was just to put up the sign that the board is on record saying no tax increase," Kester said, adding she'd run the idea by board chair Beth Jones and gotten no objection. "We were careful about the wording. It was meant to be informative."

Several calls to Jones late Tuesday afternoon got busy signals.

Kester said she'd made an unintentional error in saying she had gotten permission from Thompson in addition to that of the chair.

Thompson said her office was not ready to offer a legal opinion whether the sign actually violated the borough code. It is not yet clear if borough funds or facilities were involved. However, Thompson said the borough's interest was in remaining entirely neutral regarding ballot propositions.

"Clearly Mr. Price didn't take it as neutral," Thompson said.

The flap over the sign may be indicative of political tensions within the community over recent decisions of the recreational service area board and regarding an effort by Price and some other Nikiski-area residents to rein in the board's power because of concerns that future board moves could lead to property tax increases.

Nikiski voters will decide on a three propositions on the Oct. 5 ballot, all of which have tax implications. Two of them were generated by initiative efforts arising out of issues surrounding the service area board.

Earlier this year, the board explored the possibility of acquiring the now vacant Nikiski Elementary School building as a future community center. Although at this time that proposal is on indefinite hold because of rising construction costs, it led a group of Nikiski residents to challenge the board at the ballot box.

Proposition 3, if passed, would specifically prohibit the service area from using tax revenues for a community hall. In addition, it would prohibit the use of taxpayer funds to convert a municipal building, effectively banning acquisition of the school.

Proposition 4 would require the service area board to seek service-area voter approval before launching any capital project in excess of $500,000. The current limit is $1.5 million.



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