It may be the ultimate in political irony, at least on the Kenai Peninsula. Nikiski, a community not known for embracing the government establishment, is exploring the idea of incorporating as a city -- in other words, creating its own government.
It's way too early to give the idea a thumbs up or down, since a specific plan has not yet been put forward. A Thursday night meeting at the Nikiski Senior Center intimated, however, that the discussion is likely to get v-e-r-y interesting. It was obvious from the packed house at the senior center that feelings about the incorporation idea range from gung-ho to hostile.
While the incorporation concept deserves a fair study, all those affected by incorporation also deserve straightforward answers to their questions. Thursday's meeting raised a few red flags that incorporation proponents should consider:
Not only does it not engender trust in the concept, but it's wrong for an assembly member and one of the major drivers of the incorporation idea to tell an audience at a public meeting that he won't provide all the details of why he believes incorporation is the best route for Nikiski in public, but he will tell each of them privately. When residents are told they stand to lose the freedoms they value if they don't incorporate, they deserve to know why -- in specifics.
It's also wrong for proponents of incorporation to mix apples and oranges to gain sympathy for their cause. For example, to imply that two snowmachine fatalities earlier this year could have been prevented by better road maintenance is grossly unfair.
Nothing will cause incorporation proponents to lose their credibility faster than being loose with numbers. Is it true, for example, that Nikiski contains 50 percent of the borough's tax base but receives the least amount of services in the borough? Who pays the lion's share of those taxes -- Nikiski residents or the industries located there? Borough figures show total assessed property values of about $3.4 billion; about $1 billion of that total comes from within the boundaries of the Nikiski Senior Service Area.
Those concerns aside, without a specific plan, there can be no specific answers to the multitude of questions that arise from the idea of incorporation. A sampling: What exactly is driving the move for incorporation? What are the benefits of double (the new city and the existing borough) government? Who would pay for the new city government? Would taxes go up or down? Would Nikiski be a better place to live and do business as a city than it is now? What infrastructure for economic development could the city supply that the borough can't?
The bottom line questions for each Nikiski resident and business: How much is it going to cost me, and how will I benefit?
No one has those answers -- yet. But the success of any incorporation plan ultimately hinges on the answers to those questions. Only if Nikiski residents are convinced that the benefits are worth the costs will incorporation fly.
Those who believe incorporation means a brighter future for Nikiski are setting out to find answers and put together a plan. They have their work cut out for them.
Among the major issues to be resolved is: How big should the city of Nikiski be?
The state has some fairly specific guidelines, rooted in the Alaska Constitution, when it comes to incorporation of a city within an organized borough, including size. Of the 145 existing cities within Alaska, the average size is 27 square miles. Incorporation proponents have more grandiose plans in mind and seem to think they will be able to work outside of the state's guidelines. Although final boundaries have not been determined, ideas advanced so far include a city of several thousand square miles.
The size of the proposed city raises its own set of questions, not the least of which, is how can you have an efficient city government in such a large area. Other questions are grounded in the identity of the new city: What's Nikiski? Is it the senior service area? The recreation service area? The fire service area? Does it include all the way to Point Possession? Does it encompass Cook Inlet and land on the West side of Cook Inlet? Why would Tyonek want to be a part of the the new city of Nikiski? What's the vision for the proposed city -- and whose vision is it?
Those backing incorporation have a formidable task before them. If they are able to unite a community where residents have a reputation of loving to hate government behind the idea of a new layer of government, then they will have come up with a plan worth considering.
We wish them well.
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