Rural villages welcome public works projects

$1.8 million state capital budget will boost infrastructure

Posted: Tuesday, May 29, 2007

ANCHORAGE - The $1.8 billion state capital budget has municipal officials in rural Alaska excited about the prospects of adding or repairing infrastructure in their communities.

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One of the largest capital budgets ever will help fix old schools, add plumbing to homes and build airports.

Barring line item vetoes by Gov. Sarah Palin, the measure also boosts municipal aid to villages for the first time in years.

"It's delightful," said Martin Moore, the city manager of Emmonak.

The capital budget provides his western Alaska village of 750 with about $4 million for flood repairs and airport improvements. Another $60,000 will pay for a used fire truck to replace one destroyed by vandals last year, he said.

Emmonak also gets $112,000 in municipal aid, compared with $64,000 this year. The money will help buy diesel fuel to power community buildings. It also will pay for rescues and provide water and sewer services, Moore said.

"It is going to help us survive on a bare-bottom level," he said. "It's a tremendous help, and please tell those legislators we appreciate it."

The $1.8 billion capital budget includes about $583 million in state general fund money plus federal and other revenue.

Anchorage and other urban areas are in line for parks, football fields and even money for nonprofit associations that provide theater and symphony performances.

Rural Alaska projects typically are more basic.

About $13 million will turn an old school in St. Marys into a job training center for the lower Yukon region. Unalakleet could get $1 million for road paving and dust control, considered important for reducing high rates of respiratory illnesses.

"The needs are so great out here that it takes a number of years of big capital budgets to get us where we need to be," said Rep. Bryce Edgmon, D-Dillingham.

The high school in that Bristol Bay city is slated to get $600,000 for fire alarm and sprinklers in the gymnasium and to update the system elsewhere in the school, Edgmon said.

Nome is expecting $2.25 million to help repair a recreation center, including its leaky roof. The money also will help build an outdoor ice skating facility, said Mayor Denise Michels. Another $150,000 will help buy a new shooting range on city land.

The city is scheduled to get more than $10 million for constructing a public safety building, replacing a power plant and improving the airport.

"We're grateful," Michels said. "Anything we can get from the capital budget helps improve the quality of life out here."

Rural Alaska will benefit most from municipal aid, also called revenue sharing, said Bill Rolfzen, who administers the program.

Legislators gave $48.7 million, about the same as last year, he said. But by reducing the allotment for boroughs, they sharply increased the amount going to villages, Rolfzen said.

It's the first boost they've had in at least two decades, he said.

Instead of $40,000, more than 100 rural communities will get $75,000 or more, he said.

Another 110 unorganized communities that got no money last year will get $20,000 to $75,000.

The money is especially important for rural cities struggling to pay insurance bills and wholesale diesel fuel costs that have tripled in eight years to more than $3 a gallon, Moore said.

Former Gov. Frank Murkowski ended the revenue sharing program in 2003, but lawmakers have continued to provide yearly, though sometimes reduced, assistance.

About a dozen communities have shut their administrative doors because they could not afford to operate, Rolfzen said.

"I don't foresee any communities having to shut their doors in the next year," he said.

"I would call it a successful year for the Bush," said Sen. Lyman Hoffman, D-Bethel.

Hoffman's elevation to Senate Finance Committee co-chairman by a new bipartisan majority helped fuel aid to rural Alaska. Dominated by Democrats, the Bush caucus has struggled in the past to have its voice heard by the Republican majority.

"This is the best treatment we've gotten in more than a decade," Hoffman said.

The Senate did not get everything it wanted, including a permanent revenue sharing program and a long-term fix for education, he said.

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