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City approves $250K for water study, AJ mine work

Posted: June 29, 2011 - 9:15pm

A request for funds to start a study on the city’s water systems and vulnerabilities — existing and with the potential presence of a mine — along with funds for staff time and legal fees has moved forward.

The Assembly Committee of the Whole met Monday and after divided discussion it unanimously approved forwarding the request to the Assembly. The Committee of the Whole consists of the full Assembly, however it serves as a work session body rather than an acting body.

City Engineering Director Rorie Watt, who served as the city liaison for the AJ Mine Advisory Committee, is interested in taking on the AJ studies. In order to do that, since he is the director of the engineering department, staffing adjustments must be made.

“What I’ve suggested in $250,000, is what I think it will cost if we really get into this,” Watt said. “Those are the three main components that I see. It could be partial funding, where it would sequentially happen over time. It doesn’t have to be $250,000 right now.”

Assemblyman Merrill Sanford said he was in favor of getting started on the water study right away, but felt there wasn’t enough information to move forward with the other two elements of the request. He asked how much the water study alone would cost. Watt estimated $50,000.

Assemblyman Bob Doll said his first reaction to the proposal of dividing Watt’s duties was bad. He changed his mind, however, when thought how a person might work if the sole purpose of their job was working with the AJ Mine.

“It occurred to me, when you hire someone to do something like advancing the mine, his job depends on it,” Doll said. “If the mine doesn’t advance he loses his job. I think (Watt) is the most credible reporter on this topic that has appeared thus far. If that means we need to hire somebody to take up part of the slack that results, so be it. The idea that he has a job to fall back on is great. His primary objective is not to promote a mine.”

Doll said he would support the proposal for the initial funds to start this portion of research in the mine, but it would be the last time he would do so. Doll said before he approves any more funding he wants the Assembly to draft conditional “go, no go” points for the whole process.

“We have to have the idea that this mine is disposable,” Doll said. “We don’t have one now, we don’t have to have one in the future. I would also like to offer the concept of a citizen’s review committee that’s contained in the public testimony.”

Assemblywoman Ruth Danner asked if the department had an open position that could be reassigned.

City Manager Rod Swope said what’s currently being discussed — rather than hiring an extra person — is to move Chief Capital Improvement Project Engineer John Bohan either up to a new position, deputy director, or add duties and compensate him for that. That means some of Watt’s duties would go to Bohan, and some of his duties would be shifted down as well.

Swope said that in order to create a new position such as “deputy director” the Assembly would have to approve it.

Danner also expressed concern over the public perception of allotting the funds.

“I would like the public to believe that we’re really in the research phase,” Danner said. “Once you set money aside, they will think that we are going to spend it, that we are free to spend it — and we are. I think it’s more important for us to reserve that additional $200,000 for the next task. Ask when you’re ready.”

Watt emphasized the need for additional funds for staffing time. He explained engineering department expenditures are billed out per project. There are no designated funds for the AJ Mine. The time spent working with the mine advisory committee was covered by the engineering department’s overhead budget. Watt said they don’t like to have a high overhead and really need to account for their time spent properly.

Danner agreed, saying it’s important to have the correct accounting. She asked how much Watt would really need for that.

Watt said that depends on the study and the public. He said if he were left in a vacuum for three months and solely worked on the water study it would take less. Realistically, he expects there to be a lot of public discourse about the document, whether it ends up being thorough enough. Watt said the whole process for the water study could take up to two years.

Crane said she supported the full proposal because the water study will take extensive work. She said they don’t know when or if they will need to bring in outside experts on multiple sides of the issue, but she said if they do it will cost something.

Mayor Bruce Botelho emphasized that there will be a lot of “go, no go” points throughout the process.

Doll made the motion for the entire amount. Danner said she would vote in favor of it, but with reservations.

“Don’t want the public to think we are pushing this through,” Danner said.

The Assembly will still need to pass the motion at its regular meeting.

• Contact reporter Sarah Day at 523-2279 or at sarah.day@juneauempire.com.

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