Call for more government in small communities a worry for those who want control

Behind the News

Posted: Sunday, February 25, 2001

The battle over boroughs pits two long-standing Alaskan ideals against each other.

One is self-sufficiency, the other, independence. In other words, it's "We can darn well take care of ourselves" vs. "We don't want any more stinking government."

For those who don't follow all the details of local governmental structure, boroughs are something akin to counties in most Lower 48 states. They usually include several towns or cities and provide a regional administration that runs the schools and some other services - and also charge taxes to pay for those services.

Dan Bockhorst, who works for the state's Local Boundary Commission, said the people who wrote Alaska's constitution set up boroughs to avoid some of the problems found in Lower 48 counties.

"Many states have multiple overlapping governments. Washington state, for example, has 17 different tax-levying jurisdictions - road service areas, fire protection districts and so on," he said. "In Alaska we have a very efficient form of government."

Some places, such as Juneau, Sitka and Anchorage, have reduced the overlap even further by merging city and borough functions. Ketchikan and Haines are considering similar mergers for some of the same reasons - reducing paperwork and confusion.

But large parts of the state are not in boroughs and that means the people who live there have less government and fewer taxes. They also have fewer services, or less control over those they get. And those services are usually paid for by the state.

Some people want that to change.

A bill before the Legislature would require some areas that aren't in boroughs to form one or join another. Sponsor Sen. Gary Wilken, a Fairbanks Republican, said the measure would make people take more responsibility for local schools, in part by paying for a share of their costs through property or other taxes.

"I believe that if you write a check every year," he said at a hearing this month, "you also worry about whether a school is falling apart."

There was also a brief flurry of discussion about a new northern Southeast borough a few weeks ago after a Haines official asked whether the local borough should expand to include surrounding communities. Hoonah, Tenakee Springs, Pelican, Gustavus and Elfin Cove leaders started talking about reviving the idea of creating a common borough to keep from being forced into someone else's regional government.

The idea didn't fly far in Tenakee, a town of about 100 on an inlet off Chatham Strait.

"We're a pretty independent spot here, not unlike Gustavus," said Mayor Vicki Wisenbaugh. "We're all unique and we like being that way."

Tenakee is what's called a second-class city and provides some facilities and services such as a small library, a community hall, a seaplane base and the electrical power distribution system. It's a do-it-yourself community, where a committee maintains the namesake hot springs building and locals raise money for the volunteer fire department.

But there's no water or sewer system and education is provided through the Angoon-based Chatham Schools, which covers several other small communities.

With no significant industry and so few people, many of them retirees, the town would have a hard time raising funds for teachers and textbooks even with a property tax.

"Most people who live in these little towns don't have much money," said longtime resident Bob Pegues. "You could tax them right out of existence. Then you'd have people selling out to out-of-state folks who want summer homes."

Beyond the funding issue, there are concerns larger communities, such as Hoonah, would dominate smaller ones in a new borough.

"It doesn't give the smaller communities more control at all," said Geoff Pegues, another longtime Tenakee resident. "It just gives the one big community more control."

Bob Pegues said state officials should revisit the concept of boroughs for smaller towns in diverse areas such as northern Southeast. It's easy to say small communities should take more responsibility by joining into boroughs, but the current system means a loss of local decision-making power for towns like Tenakee.

"The whole concept is wrongheaded," he said. "It institutes a level of government that's not needed or wanted."

Bockhorst of the local boundary commission said it's common for people outside boroughs to feel threatened by the possibility of being included in one. But, he said, they eventually will have to deal with it, whether through a legislative mandate or a grab by a nearby community. And it's better to do it on their own terms.

"They have the opportunity to exercise local control over a region, not let someone else have that opportunity," he said.

Ed Schoenfeld is city editor of the Juneau Empire. He can be reached at

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