The chair behind Gwen Watkins' desk is empty and a sign on the door of the Kenai Peninsula Borough's annex office on Pioneer Avenue says "closed." Borough personnel say closure of the office, which happened earlier this month, is temporary, and a replacement is being sought for Watkins.
"There are no plans to close the office," said Bonita Miller of the KPB General Services office. "The secretary position is being recruited from within. It's a union position so it's being posted in-house, and then it will go to a public notice."
In the past, a temporary employee has worked through the absence of a secretary, but Miller said the employee that has filled in as needed is currently out of town.
Watkins has worked in the office since in opened in its current location on Pioneer Avenue in 1997.
"Due to several medical issues, I've missed a lot of work using up all my sick leave, vacation time and family medical leave. For the immediate future, I was only going to be able to work three days a week and travel the other two for treatment. This was not acceptable to the borough," Watkins told the Homer News.
"We're really going to miss her," said Mako Haggerty, who represents the southern Kenai Peninsula, with the exception of the city of Homer, on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. "Not only was she a wealth of knowledge, she was the first person to deal with. She ran the office the way you'd want a government office to be run, providing nothing but service and making it easy for anybody looking for information to get it."
A sign on the door of the office asks that calls be placed to 907-714-2130, which is the borough's human resource office in Soldotna. Calls placed by the Homer News to that number have not been returned.
At least twice in the past, closure of the Homer annex has been considered. KPB Mayor Dave Carey assured Bill Smith, who represents the city of Homer on the borough assembly, that getting the office reopened is a priority.
"He said basically they are looking hard to find someone to fill that position," said Smith of a conversation he had with the mayor. "(Carey) is concerned we have someone there as soon as possible and is working toward that end."
Haggerty also is interested in seeing the sign on the office door be removed.
"We're going to work to get that place open," he said.
Although Watkins won't be returning to the office, her years of experience make her aware of its importance to the area.
"Due to union contracts (the borough) had to lay me off. As it was, they did extend me three weeks unpaid leave according to their records. According to Bonita Miller...I am eligible for rehire. In the meantime, there are two trained people in town available -- one full-time and one part-time. The office should be open now. I am shocked and disappointed that it is not," said Watkins. "I will miss helping all the taxpayers, especially the seniors. I've learned so much about Homer, made great friends. I am so thankful, grateful for my 20-plus years with the borough."
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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