Kodiak is on the verge of Brexiting itself.
When the British voted to leave the EU they did not realize what a hot mess they were voting themselves into. Likewise, the Kodiak Island Borough Assembly put the advisory question of consolidation to Kodiak voters without even knowing what they were proposing. The assembly did attempt to hire a professional analyst to do a report on the effects of consolidating the city and borough into a single municipality. But no one took the job. So the assembly went forward anyway, blindly putting the question to voters.
Now we are beginning to see. I have been serving as the city’s representative on the Consolidation Committee, whose job it is to fill out the consolidation form for submission to the State’s Local Boundary Commission. One of the first questions on the form is “Why?” Despite lengthy discussions we have never satisfactorily answered this question. The most obvious reason to consolidate would be to save money and make for more efficient government. But city and borough functions do not overlap. The new bigger municipality will still have the same jobs to do. There is no indication that combining them into a single monolithic government will result in a reduction in staff; it will certainly make for a bigger, more ponderous bureaucracy. Likewise, combining the city and borough governments will not reduce the size of government. It will just make one really big government. It will, however, reduce representation.
And there’s the rub. The Constitution of the State of Alaska requires “maximum local self-government.” The new borough, by consuming and digesting the city and depositing a service district in its place, will be reducing self-government. Citizens of the City will find they have traded self-determination for a service district and a seat or two on the new assembly. I was appalled at a recent meeting of the committee when the majority of members chose to split the borough up into voting districts without regard to population, or any other stated criteria. This will certainly face a Constitutional challenge.
In its deliberations the Consolidation Committee has been studying the failed attempt to consolidate the city and borough of Ketchikan. Like Kodiak, Ketchikan had no appreciable duplication of services. But they did have a legitimate point of contention: the City of Ketchikan pays for the hospital, an area-wide service used by the whole borough. If they had chosen to consolidate, all the residents of the new borough would have been on the hook for the hospital. Likewise, the City of Kodiak pays for the Port and Harbors, which is considered an area-wide service in Ketchikan. It is quite likely the Port and Harbors of the new Kodiak municipality would be considered an area-wide service too, and financed by the whole borough, especially considering the reduced local self governance of the Service District Formerly Known as the City.
It should be pointed out that Kodiak’s past civil servants did a great job of parking area-wide services in the borough, where they belong. The schools and hospital are good examples. The Borough manages long-term bond debt paid for by the relatively stable revenues provided by property taxes. The city, on the other hand, lives and dies by sales tax. Infrastructure that helps the economy thrive is paid for by that very same economy. The city’s concerns are immediate: fixing things when they break, and paying bills when they come in. If a drop in the economy brings a drop in sales tax revenues the city will be compelled to reduce expenditures, and thus services, as they should.
Consolidation means creating a single giant General Fund, from which both school bond debt and harbor repair bills will be paid. Are borough residents prepared to pay higher property taxes to replace pilings in the harbor? Are residents of The Service District Formerly Known as the City ready to funnel sales tax revenues to pay school bond debt when the state discontinues bond debt reimbursement?
And, when these difficult issues must be addressed, are the citizens going to be well served by their reduced, representationally disproportional government? Because if you think governing bodies of the past have been dysfunctional, wait until there are half as many wrangling over twice the issues. This may make for high radio drama, but it is not maximum local self-government.
Also, the quest to consolidate will be long, arduous, and expensive. Staff time is already being expended right now, and we have years more work to do. Lawyers will be required, and they ain’t cheap. An election will have to be held. These are not free either. And if approved, all the new departments of the new municipality will have to be built from scratch, over the first couple of years. Either we will have to hire contractors for that job, or staff will be doing that instead of the business of the taxpayers. In short, consolidation of the city and borough of Kodiak is an expensive, risky, radical solution to a fatally undefined problem, if any.
But there is a problem to address. Service District Number 1, located along the northern border of the city, is for all purposes a part of the city. They are hooked up to city sewer and water, (for which they pay a premium price). They are geographically contiguous to the city, and economically and culturally linked. As a representative of the Boundary Commission said about Service District 1: “If it walks like a duck, and talks like a duck…” But despite the fact residents of Service District 1 shop at Walmart, have a boat in the harbor, and pay for city services, they get no vote in city elections, nor can they serve on advisory boards. Hardly maximum local self-government. Efforts are underway to explore the option of joining Service District 1 with the city through annexation. That is a real answer to a well-defined question.
Terry Haines is on the Kodiak City Council and the city’s representative on the Consolidation Committee.