Local News

Lawsuit funding approved by a narrow margin

With one member absent Monday, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly narrowly approved a motion authorizing more money for a lawsuit challenging the State of Alaska over education funding. The vote was really, really close, in fact, and the mayor – who was home sick – phoned in to break the tie.

Borough Mayor Dave Kiffer apparently guessed how the lawsuit funding vote would pan out, because he had arranged for the clerk to call just prior to that motion, so he could break the tie.

The motion was to appropriate an additional $150,000 toward a lawsuit that the borough filed against the state. There wasn’t much discussion when the motion came to the floor, but earlier, during public comment, a former Borough Assembly member sparked some debate with a simple question.

Here is Jim Shoemaker, speaking at the lectern: “In the merits, I wholeheartedly agree. I voted for it. But what if we win? Where does the money come from? So, when you turn around and you look at funding this, I think we have to stop at this point in time and take a look and say, ‘OK, where does the state go?’ It may not be our obligation, but we live in the state of Alaska, and ultimately, we’re going to pay.”

Shoemaker said that the state will have to make up the revenue somewhere, so either a service will go away, or a new tax will be implemented.

Assembly members agreed, to some extent, but noted that if the borough wins and the court requires the Legislature to fix the problem, any solution the state comes up with would at least be fair to everyone.

The lawsuit challenges the state over what the borough says is an unfair mandate requiring boroughs and first-class cities — but not anyone else — to fund a minimum level for local schools.

In response to Shoemaker’s comments, Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst said the question is legitimate, and one that the Assembly has considered. But Bockhorst had his own question: “What if we do nothing? If we don’t draw a line in the sand and push back now, at what point do we do that? In the seven years that the Assembly has been considering (this issue), this community has paid $34 million in required contributions — unconstitutional. It’s a complex issue, and this Assembly has discussed it inside and out, and you as a member of the Assembly participated in that. There’s a lot more to it than just how is it going to be funded. It’s going to get funded one way or another, but it’s going to be more fair than what it is now.”

For quite a few years, the borough has tried encouraging the Legislature to find a solution, but until recently had no luck. On Jan. 10, however, Fairbanks Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson pre-filed a bill in the state House that would repeal the required local contribution. That bill will be considered this legislative session.

In the meantime, though, the lawsuit will move forward. The $150,000 to fund it will come from the borough’s Economic Development Fund, and should pay for costs through June. With Assembly Member Todd Phillips absent, the vote was 3-3 until Kiffer broke the tie.

Those voting against the motion were Alan Bailey, Jim Van Horn and Bill Rotecki.

Also on Monday, the Assembly also gave direction for the borough to explore the possibility of a disc golf course in the wooded area behind Schoenbar Middle School. But, Assembly members want a local organization to lead the effort.

Members also approved an agreement with the state Department of Natural Resources to allow a log transfer facility at the old Seley Mill site on Gravina Island through 2017; and a lease agreement with Ketchikan Dog Park allowing development of a dog park off Revilla Road.

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