As an 11-member committee continues to discuss the possibility of consolidating Kodiak’s city and borough governments, the Kodiak City Council weighed in with some doubts about the plan at a work session on Tuesday.
The Kodiak Island Borough has tasked a committee made up of 11 members, plus three non-voting members, to explore consolidation of the island’s two governments, which would involve a process of dissolving the borough and city governments into one and creating a new entity.
The committee has been meeting since last September to fill out a consolidation application. Already halfway through the process, the committee will submit the petition to the borough for review.
If accepted, the issue of consolidation will be brought to the people in a vote, said Borough Assembly Member Julie Kavanaugh, who is chair of the committee.
Kavanaugh reiterated that decisions made by the committee are only suggestions and could be changed, thrown out or kept by the assembly.
The city’s representative on the committee, Councilor Terry Haines, has been an outspoken opponent of consolidation since the committee’s early meetings. Haines was nominated by the city council in July 2019 to represent the city on the committee.
According to a letter obtained by the Kodiak Daily Mirror, sent last year from the city council to the borough assembly, the city urged then-Borough Mayor Dan Rohrer to appoint committee members who did not have any predisposition on the subject of consolidation
“To set an unbiased tone, it will serve this community well if the appointed members are neutral and currently detached from any City or Borough employment,” the letter said.
But at Tuesday’s meeting, Haines reiterated his long-standing opposition, saying that the committee was flying blind and unqualified to make the decisions they were making.
“As a city council, we should be very firm whether or not this is a good idea. We need to do our basic groundwork,” he said, noting that the committee is just now exploring what consolidation entails.
With the borough’s oversight on the process, some council members expressed concern that the borough was making decisions for the city.
City Councilor John Whiddon described the process as a “hostile takeover” by the borough and said that “the borough does not decide what happens to the city and the city, conversely, does not decide what happens to the borough.”
He said he would like to see how the committee conducts public outreach and demonstrates equitable representation across boundary lines.
Meagan Christiansen, a non-voting member of the consolidation committee, said the members are apolitical during the meetings and strive to be fair, while keeping in mind efficiencies and diminishing confusion between services granted between governments.
Through consolidation, the committee hopes to provide maximum self-governance with minimum governmental units, as well as provide streamlined services in an equitable manner and effective representation.
Kavanaugh said committee members want services to be paid for by the people who use them, which is why they separated services into two categories: non-area-wide for services only available in certain locations, and area-wide services for those available throughout the borough.
She said all current borough area-wide powers will be maintained, and all current borough non-area-wide powers, including the current city powers, would become adopted for the new home-rule borough named the Municipality of Kodiak.
Some council members opposed that idea because, they said, the word “municipality” implied a process of unification that did not occur.
“If you are going to consolidate, it would be more understandable that we are the City and Borough of Kodiak, like Juneau and every other town except for the two municipalities,” said Kodiak City Mayor Pat Branson, referring to Anchorage and Skagway, the only two consolidated city-boroughs in that state that are municipalities.
In a new consolidated government, Kavanaugh said, villages would remain autonomous.
“Our village members that have reached out to us were concerned that they will lose their identity,” she said. “We are strictly talking about the city and borough.”
Law enforcement would also remain the same, with the Kodiak Police Department responsible for the area within current city limits and Alaska State Troopers responsible for the other areas.
Water and sewer services would also continue in the area of the current infrastructure and would be paid by user fees. Currently, the city provides water and sewer services for residents who live inside city limits and Service District 1.
However, residents in other areas could choose to expand sewer and water and police services to their areas after the new entity is formed.
The new borough would have a centrally administered fire department with a blended workforce of paid and volunteer workers. The fire department would be paid for by user fees and taxes.
The new government would also have an internal public works department that would conduct road and maintenance services throughout the entire road system. The government would be able to subcontract if needed.
The Kodiak Municipal Airport and Trident Basin Seaplane Base would be supported by user fees and an area-wide tax.
Port and harbor services would be provided as a borough-wide power and service, and services would be paid for by an area-wide tax and user fees. Facilities owned by the island’s second-class cities and tribal governments would be excluded.
“We want to make sure that the second-class cities and tribal governments didn't think we were going to take over their harbors,” Kavanaugh said.
Animal control services would be provided on the road system and funded by a non-area-wide property tax.
Health powers and tourism would be provided area-wide, and economic development and disaster preparedness would also be provided on an area-wide basis.
Kavanaugh said the committee was formed based on a vote from the public in 2016. The ballot that year read, “Should the Kodiak Island Borough pursue the idea of consolidating the Kodiak Island Borough and the City of Kodiak into a single unit of government?”
During a meeting in August 2019, Assembly Member Rebecca Skinner said voting in support of the measure would have the assembly “put more time and more resources into researching the costs and the pros and cons of moving forward.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Haines said he thought the voters were ill informed when the vote was taken, and added that no study has been done on the impacts and cost of consolidation on the community.
“We need to do the basic groundwork. This committee should never have been formed on the basis of that vote,” he said. “We are juggling things like police, garbage, decisions that this committee — as well-meaning as they are — are not qualified to make.”
Kavanaugh said she appreciates different opinions on a committee. She foresees the committee’s process taking at least another year to complete.
“I really think that if this committee is going to do a good job, that dissension is good and it keeps people honest,” she said. “So I appreciate different viewpoints even if sometimes that makes it hard to have that discussion.”