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Thursday, July 5, 2012


But few as strange as bearing witness to a borough assembly meeting which seems as if the worlds of Robert Service and Shakespeare are crashing together as your elected officials drift between perception and reality in a performance that could have come straight out of a Midsummer Night’s Dream. 

The last assembly meeting started off with the fate of the M/V Susitna Ferry that remains a dream but is treated like an orphan in a floating reality, with no one taking on financial responsibility.  Motorized users at Jim Creek were revved up against an attempt to clarify multiple misunderstandings about the Assembly's true intent for development of more than 400 Borough owned acres there.   And one citizen victory prevailed for people in one neighborhood against the heavy hand of the borough and corporate interests.

Like we said..when worlds collide there are dreams and realities.

What's up Dock?

The M/V Susitna was suppose to be a dream come true courtesy of one of the last pieces of pork delivered by Uncle Ted Stevens, former U.S. Senator.  The borough would get a ferry built by the military and testing would be done on the capabilities of the new multi-use ice breaking/landing craft/ferry.  The borough would then magically get the ferry to transport cars and commuters between Port MacKenzie and Anchorage. It was visualized as a precursor of sorts to a bridge connecting the two land masses and its citizenry. But hey it’s deja vu all over again in the tradition of brand new grain silos and railcars, built in the 1980's, that never exported a grain of Delta barley to the world because the M/V Susitna could cost Borough taxpayers $1 million to $2 million per year whether it carries a single passenger or vehicle or not.  Sound familiar?

The torrid ferry tale was revealed during the normal yawner of reports at the beginning of the Assembly meeting.  Borough Manager Moosey tantalized the men of the Assembly with possible ways out of the multi-million dollar boondoggle, with many of the same possibilities he aired in February.  Hope springs eternal.  Hired just in time to be expected to wave a magic wand to fix this “ferry” tale, it has been high on Mr. Moosey's to overcome list no doubt.

Some choices are truly optional or maybe NOT

  • The state ferry system could take over the ferry as a short or long-term replacement for ferries going out of service or as backup.  Built as a prototype the bow loading M/V Susitna isn't compatible with most docks that now load cars onto the side of existing ferries. Problem not easily solved and would, yes, you guessed it, cost more money!

  • The Naval Underwater Research Center says they would also love the boat if the Borough would spend $2 million for upgrades and pay another half million per year to offset their costs. Hey we were always taught the answer is no unless you ask.

  • Private companies might consider operating the vessel if the borough foots the cost of operations and then shares proceeds from clients—those elusive clients. Another guaranteed money loser. 

  • The option was considered to dock the boat in Seward for $9,000 per month except there is no way to lift it onto the dry dock—that would be an additional expense.  Surprise, surprise! Long term dry docking was not recommended, said Manager Moosey.

  • The suggestion to beach the vessel at Pt. MacKenzie comes up somehow at every assembly meeting. A couple assemblymen love this idea which would be a convenient way for a little payback to favored big contractor and political supporter who just happens to be working at the port and is  (APOC reports always show there is more to the story) itchin to put some big mega inner-tubes under the seemingly big floating anchor. Manager Moosey reported this was definitely not recommended.  Assemblymen Arvin's disembodied voice from China urged the Manager to keep looking for a way to dry dock at Pt. Mac even with a special cradle. After all there is an election this fall.

  • The Navy is anxious for the Borough to take possession of the boat which was scheduled to happen last February.  But several items need to be completed such as radar, Coast Guard certification and emergency response.  The Navy isn't paying.  Another big surprise, not!  It’s looking more and more like the Borough is on the hook.  The Coast Guard looking at its own shrinking budget has no interest in adding the borough ferry to its fleet.

Please Please Sell To the highest bidder!

Asked if there are results from an appraisal so the boat could be sold the manager said no appraisal had been done.  A sale would determine value or perhaps work with a broker. Makes us wonder if it’s perhaps the same broker who finally unloaded the famed Governor Frank's jet? Visualize the cash register drawer slamming open and shut and your tax dollars inside.

Assemblyman Halter asked the price to build landings and what would happen to grant funds if landings were not built? Hold on Mr. Halter..don’t be dreamin of a pot of gold for northern district projects yet.  Moosey stated $30 million were needed to build landings but the feds have put hold on that portion of grant funds because there is no place to dock and none are being built.  If landings are not constructed then grant funds would probably go back to those evil feds.

Add that pile of good news to the million spent dollars in grant funds that would have to be returned to the federal government if the vessel isn't used as required.  You know,  ferrying passengers and cars between Pt. Mac and Anchorage.  And even if the ferry is given up to the federal surplus system or sold, the m/v Susitna will simply be gone like the end of a car lease when the car has to be returned.  Rarely a good financial decision.

Turns out the dream was for an almost free low cost ferry gifted to the Borough from the military. But the harsh reality is that the boat got built, alas missing was that pesky memorandum of understanding with the Municipality of Anchorage to share costs.  The ferry sits finished but there is neither agreement nor designated docks for the craft to land at Port Mac or Anchorage.  Big bills have started to crash on the shore of the borough that is now due for Mat-Su taxpayers to pay.  So what is the future of this ferry tale?

Well the dream lives on and you can expect the finger pointing to continue but nothing real has materialized and the bills are rolling in for Mat-Su taxpayers to pick up.  There is a sinking feeling this “ferry tale” will not have a happy ending.

Jim Creek plan revs up motorized users—but non-motorized users do not quit or go quietly into the good night.

Car burnings and unbridled craziness have toned down a bit at Jim Creek in recent years, but the tense truce between motorized and non-motorized users turned into another flare-up as a new cup of gasoline was added when the Jim Creek Master plan for more than 400 Borough acres was re-labeled by the Assembly as a “motorized” development plan in a previous meeting.  Reportedly a flood of emails from both non-motorized and motorized users hit assembly mailboxes since.  

The Borough Community Development Department proceeded accordingly without contemplating separate non-motorized trails or uses.  After a passel of motorized users testified that the non-motorized users were free to use their trails and facilities, non-motorized users testified that the motorized trails were not safe, not usable, and not always compatible with non-motorized uses.  And there is plenty of land to accommodate both types of use which leads to more frustration.

Eric Philips, who became the fourth Borough Community Development Manager in about a year, was cross-examined by the Men of the Assembly.  Both he, and Manager Moosey, stated that separate non-motorized facilities and uses were not being considered due to "motorized" being inserted into the title at the previous assembly meeting by, and not to be redundant,  Mr. Arvin who is not the representative of this district, and in fact spends most of his waking hours in China and we're guessing hasn't set foot in the Jim Creek area in ages.  Management and staff deserve a little slack here. Seems pretty reasonable to think given a task of which the title includes "motorized" would prompt the planning to be geared that way.  After all wasn’t that the point of the title change initiated by Assemblyman Arvin? 

To his credit and normally a big proponent of motorized all over the borough, Assemblyman Noel Woods argued that “We didn't intend that non-motorized be excluded.” Then Woods moved to strike two paragraphs of the resolution that seemed to imply motorized exclusivity.  Assemblyman Arvin's DVA (disembodied voice from afar) objected.  Arvin argued that non-motorized uses would be accommodated without making changes to the motorized title.  Makes us expect when we do see Mr. Arvin again he be sporting a new “motorized” tattoo somewhere.

Assemblyman Keogh ever the voice of reason said, “Words matter.  If the intent is to include motorized and non-motorized access we should say so.”

The Assembly attempted a compromise by declaring their intent to include non-motorized uses in the development of the Jim Creek plan and then voted down the new resolution that would have specifically stated “non-motorized” uses would be included. Say what?

The ceremonial mayor was clearly rankled by the resolution that was brought forth to clarify the issue as well as the obvious confusion within the Borough.  He admitted that the long discussion at least clarified the intent of the Jim Creek Plan.  Okkkkkay..and had Assemblyman Keogh not persisted in getting the issue clarified on the project within his district, it could have proceeded against the actual intent of the Assembly and the Butte Area Asset Management Plan.  Do these guys get irony?

Give away the farm without a second look.

The next dream sequence came on an important resolution brought forth by the mayor that garnered agreement by the minority member of the assembly regarding the preservation of farm land in the borough.

The ceremonial mayor, a carrot farmer himself, knows the value in preserving the ever dwindling supply of the only class two soils in Alaska found right here in the borough. As much as he's a lover of gravel pits and coal mines he knows you can't grow a head of lettuce, potato or carrot in it. There seemed to be solid support in testimony for the resolution that would have given the Assembly the opportunity to take a second look at a farm land parcel proposed for a public building.  The intent was to help preserve farmland if other non-farm land was easily available.  This scene is being played out currently as a site for a future Palmer elementary school that is sitting on the drawing board.  A parcel and owner sitting about smack dab in the middle of the best farmland in the borough that was given the bums rush during selection of the last school built in the area is putting a full court press attempt to bring his parcel front and center for the borough to buy. 

Get your smelling salts handy because your Citizen Lobbyist agrees with the ceremonial mayor on this one.  There are plenty of alternatives to selling a finite supply of farm land for schools and the consequences of doing so are clear. It only makes sense to put schools where neighborhoods are already located or will be developed nearby.  Put a school in the middle of prime farm land and all the remaining farmers are going to be pressured into digging up their fields and throwing in the trowel to developers looking for flat land with cash sticking out of their pockets.  All over the country the clock is being turned back to create the space for local food to be farmed.  The cost, dangers, and long range consequences of relying on food farmed far away have created complicated impacts environmentally and financially and to our citizen's health. In Alaska importing the bulk of our food supply is a huge security issue just being realized. Mat Su has a unique opportunity to create a sustainable food supply right here. Farming is a huge and growing economic centerpiece and it should be. Thanks to the rejuvenation of the outdoor market, and technology that has limited the back breaking manpower necessary plus the growing awareness for the benefits of buying local, farmers are starting to see increased and promising profits.  Good farm land is on a renewed path to be handed down to future generations that will be able to flourish and sustain the oldest lifestyle in this part of the state.  The economic sense and evidence of preserving it is pretty clear.

Apparently not clear enough for Assembly man Arvin questioning from China ,  “Are we shackling the Borough to buy the non-farm land for a school.”  Mayor Devilbiss snapped, “Absolutely not.  We are simply bringing it to the Assembly for another look.”  Steady yourself, THIS IS REASONABLE....Even the Borough Attorney verified the Assembly could select any lands they really wanted without being subject to challenge. 

Assemblyman Salmon (a realtor by profession) chimed in saying it might not be fair to people trying to sell their land which seems odd because nothing in the resolution suggested owners couldn't sell. In fact there was no infringement to property rights real or imagined. But to those on the assembly that won’t rest until every square inch has something they can point to as development looking into the future needs and security and safety of the people of the borough isn’t part of the current reasoning. Wait..isn’t this suppose to be the assembly of economic innovators? What’s wrong with focusing on programs to help farmers retain or obtain land as a borough economic driver?  Shouldn’t being home to the most fertile land in the state cry for inclusion in the borough’s economic goals to the state? The dream that seemed like a good idea earlier in the evening went down with only Assemblyman Keogh and Colver voting in favor. The ceremonial mayor, never shy about issuing a veto could use this power here. Let's hope this one comes back in some form for another look.  The people of the borough and the farmers deserve it to. 

Drum roll for the count it.. 4th  pro-KABATA Resolution.

With record numbers of special meetings over the past 9 months was there a compelling reason for the Assembly to once again state its support for KABATA--Knik Arm Bridge and Toll Authority?  There was a difference of opinion about whether or not this was necessary, or whether anyone had actually requested another resolution.  Manager Moosey said that four municipalities were taking the proposal jointly to the Alaska Municipal League to seek better statewide support from a legislature that has shown increased scrutiny. Originally the big bridge was “guaranteed” to be entirely privately funded.  The private funding route was a dream.  The reality seems to be that legislators (and the people of the state) are now being asked to fund the whole thing.  Surprised? Didn’t think so.

Assemblyman Keogh asked the manager what results had been produced by the $30,000 lobbying contract awarded to former legislator Eldon Mulder back in March to lobby for KABATA on behalf of the Borough.  Makes us wonder who recommended a second lobbyist to come aboard to promote the highly controversial bridge. Oddly a check on the APOC website of companies Mr. Mulder lists as who he lobbies for is E Terra LLC.  Isn't that the firm Assemblyman Colligan is a principal of?  The borough has a regular lobbyist that has been working on borough priorities for about $70,000 a year and that by all evidence of the last couple of budget cycles does a pretty good job.  Why spend another $30,000 for a short term project? The Manager said he hadn't heard anything from Mulder, but said the fourth resolution in support of KABATA was needed.  Is it needed to challenge the Municipal League to support it or else?  As you recall one of the unsuccessful veto's from the ceremonial mayor at budget time was to cancel membership in the municipal league and he was supported by Assembly man Arvin who called it a "socialist, liberal" organization.  Unsurprisingly, the resolution to support the bridge passed again.  Were guessing why not write memos to yourself when there are so little other pressing issues in the fastest growing area of the state.

Assembly Meetings although more sparse in the summer are LONGGGGGGGGGGGGGG and this one was particularly meaty so we will be serving it up in 2 parts.  Above is part 1 of our series.  The plan is to post Part 2 Sunday Evening (dont miss it..we have the transcript from one of the best 3 minute testimonies ever from the last meeting that will knock your knickers down) so you have something to read after you clean all those fish you'll be catching or tending to your weekend suntan.  

Seemingly eternal hope is catchy..

Meanwhile..think of this as "The Long, Long Trailer"...

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