SE towns consider boroughs

Posted: Sunday, January 05, 2003

Some Southeast Alaska communities will be watching carefully as the state weighs the fate of unorganized regions over the next few months.

Web links

For more information on the Local Boundary Commission and its recent report on borough formation, check out: www.dced.state.ak.us/cbd/lbc/boroughstudy/home.htm

At the behest of the Legislature, the state's Local Boundary Commission last month identified eight areas that might have the financial capacity to form a regional government - a borough. Four are in Southeast, where the subject has been controversial.

Some state lawmakers want to see boroughs formed so local residents help pay for education with local taxes. Unorganized areas don't tax themselves and so don't contribute to school funding. But many communities see the question as one of economics and autonomy.

One area identified for a possible new borough includes communities near Glacier Bay and Icy Strait, where the subject isn't new. Representatives from Hoonah, Pelican, Gustavus and Tenakee Springs began discussing a regional government after the Haines Borough inquired about annexing surrounding communities in 2001. Haines never pursued the idea, but the issue hasn't disappeared, Hoonah City Administrator Keith Bettridge said.

Hoonah recently completed a feasibility study about a Glacier Bay or Icy Strait borough, and is close to starting work on a borough-formation petition to submit to the state, he said. With 860 residents, Hoonah would be the largest town in the new borough.

"(It's) in the spirit of gathering data and providing data to other communities," he said. "Making the decision on whether to go forward could be done jointly or any communities could pursue it. All the petition would do is put it on the ballot and give communities voter input."

Although a Glacier Bay borough would give the communities political strength with the state, financial questions linger, Bettridge said.

"There may need to be some creativity as far as raising additional funds to support a borough government, which is what the communities want to know before stepping into it," he said.

Other communities are more cautious. Some Tenakee Springs residents have expressed concern about paying new taxes and losing autonomy. In Gustavus, the question of whether to form a second-class city may have priority, said Greg Streveler, chairman of the Gustavus Community Association board. Gustavus, population 429, is unincorporated.

"We're probably on the verge of starting a petition for a second-class city," he said. "Compound a borough with a city and that's a lot of action at once."

The general membership of the Gustavus Community Association is scheduled to meet Thursday about forming a second-class city, he said.

Pelican Mayor Kathie Wasserman, a former member of the Local Boundary Commission, said the drive to form boroughs has come largely from the state, but no boroughs have incorporated in the last 10 years.

"To me it seems that there need to be some incentives to encourage boroughs to form and there aren't a lot of incentives at this point," she said. "Most areas are doing it as a reaction to moves they think the state may make."

Wasserman said the state needs to provide more flexibility for communities to form boroughs. As for a Glacier Bay borough, she said the most important thing will be for Hoonah to keep its neighbors informed.

"If it is to work either way, they have to continue to talk with Gustavus and Pelican to keep the lines of communication open," she said. "At least it has to have buy-in with as many people as possible and so everyone is aware of the ramifications."

The state's commission also identified three other possible new boroughs in Southeast. They include a Chatham borough made up of Kake, Angoon and Cube Cove; a Wrangell-Petersburg borough; and a Prince of Wales Island borough.

Craig Mayor Dennis Watson said the idea of forming a borough has "been kicking around" Prince of Wales Island for years, but financial issues have been a hurdle. The communities aren't pursuing anything formal at this time, he said.

"Every time it comes up in earnest, most communities are fiercely protective of their autonomy and it doesn't go anywhere," he said. "The big question is who is going to pay for it."

The community of Craig is taking issue with some of the economic data the Local Boundary Commission reviewed in putting together the borough list, Watson said. Logging, fishing and Native corporation activity on the island have dropped in recent years, he said.

"I don't know where we're going to get the money to do it," he said.

The state's Local Boundary Commission is accepting comments about its borough formation report through February, staff member Dan Bockhorst said.

Joanna Markell can be reached at joannam@juneauempire.com.



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