After about 40 years working in Alaska, the last nine of those as the Ketchikan Gateway Borough’s manager, Dan Bockhorst is retiring effective Dec. 30. He came by KRBD to talk about his decades of public service, and his plan to relax a bit – but not too much.
Dan Bockhorst arrived in Alaska in 1976 to start work as the first administrator hired by the City of Haines. He stayed in that northern Southeast Alaska city for about four years, and then switched jobs and became a local government specialist for the state.
“And I worked for the state for the next 27 years and three months,” he said. Bockhorst likes to be exact.
As a state local boundary specialist, he mostly worked with the Local Boundary Commission, “which deals with incorporations, annexations, mergers, consolidations, dissolutions of local governments in Alaska.”
Through that job, Bockhorst learned a lot about how local governments work in Alaska, and he traveled quite a bit to different parts of the state. One place he visited often was Ketchikan, where there were some failed attempts to consolidate governments, and successful petitions to annex.
During all those business trips to Ketchikan, Bockhorst and his wife decided they liked this place.
“I had for years looked for an opportunity to move to Ketchikan, and when the position of borough manager opened up in 2007, I applied for it and was fortunate in being selected,” he said. “My attitude was, I took the job to come to Ketchikan.”
Bockhorst said he was fortunate to step into a position with a great staff and supportive Assembly. He talked about some achievements at the borough during his tenure, but stressed that all are the result of great teamwork by the staff and Assembly.
Bockhorst said the biggest change for the better has been the borough’s fiscal health. Property taxes were cut, and at the same time borough reserves grew from a too-low $1.4 million to a much more secure $7.2 million. And, with the help of a new school district reserve fund, local schools have some emergency cash of about $2 million.
So, how can you cut taxes AND increase reserves?
“There were really five reasons why the borough has had a significant turnaround in its fiscal circumstance,” he said.
First, the borough annexed a bunch of land into its boundaries in 2008 – mostly national forest land — which led to increased federal funding. The borough also started receiving a couple million dollars a year from the state’s cruise passenger head tax; and the state started kicking in more money to operate the state-owned, borough-managed Ketchikan International Airport. And the borough was careful about spending.
There also was a reduction in the required local contribution for schools. Now, that last item has been a recurring issue with the borough for years, eventually leading to a lawsuit against the state. And Bockhorst carried the torch that whole time.
“I would say that torch was lit years before I became the borough manager,” he said.
It started when he worked as chief of staff with the Local Boundary Commission. He said the required local contribution is why none of the unorganized parts of the state will ever willingly form borough governments.
“In 1963, the State of Alaska mandated that Ketchikan and seven other regions of the state form borough whether residents in those areas wanted to or not,” he said. “Since that time, the state has taken a hands-off attitude and allowed other areas to form only if they wish to do so.”
But, he said, they won’t choose to form boroughs because then they’ll have to pay for services they now get for free, like schools.
There have been successful efforts to reduce the required local contribution, and Bockhorst said the borough’s lawsuit probably helped keep that local funding mandate at its current level – up until now — even with the state facing a huge budget deficit.
One of his only disappointments as borough manager was when the Alaska Supreme Court ruled against the borough’s challenge of the required local contribution.
That ruling, though, did not extinguish the torch for Bockhorst, or for the majority of Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly members.
“The Assembly has recently passed a resolution that demands, if you will, that the state Legislature provides for parity in areas throughout Alaska, so the areas that are not contributing to the cost of schools should be compelled to do so before they ask for an increase… in the required local contribution imposed on borough governments,” he said.
You might be able to guess that the torch will continue to burn after Bockhorst’s official last day as borough manager. He said yes, he’ll be available to help, “in any way I can that’s reasonable and practical. I’m not an ideologue… but it is an important issue. The one advantage I had in coming to this community is that I had the background that I did traveling throughout Alaska, working in local government throughout Alaska, and I can see the irrational system that we have.”
Bockhorst said he’s enjoyed his job with the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, working with the staff and Assembly, and working for the public. And, he said, he has no regrets. He quoted Lewis Carroll, “who said, ‘In the end, we only regret the chances we didn’t take.’ In that regard, I have absolutely no regrets about anything that was done by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough since I became borough manager.”
But, Bockhorst is looking forward to retirement, to sleeping past 5:30 a.m., and to having more time to spend with his wife.
“My wife… and I have been together since we were teenagers, and she is truly the wind beneath my wings,” he said.
Bockhorst and his wife plan to remain in Ketchikan following his retirement.