Governor’s bond proposal skims over Southeast

A renovation to Wrangell’s Public Safety building is at the top of the borough’s list of Capital Projects funding requests. (Sage Smiley/KSTK)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced earlier this month that he’d be asking Alaska voters to approve borrowing $356 million dollars as part of a bond to replace aging state infrastructure. But Southeast projects make up a very small fraction of the governor’s list, and mid-sized communities like Wrangell and Petersburg were left out entirely.

Wrangell’s public safety building is falling apart. It desperately needs — at the very least — major renovations.

“We don’t have a choice,” says city manager Lisa Von Bargen. “It has to be done. We had to put up a shoring wall because the back side of the building was unsafe and was in danger of collapsing.”

If the community had the funding, Von Bargen says, it should be replacing the building entirely. But the estimated cost for a total rebuild overshoots the community’s budget by millions.

So Wrangell’s administration and borough assembly approved its list of capital projects priorities this year with a $10 million renovation to the public safety building at the top of the list. Von Bargen says the hope is that Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s proposed $356 million general obligation bond will cover some of the cost to make the building safe.

The governor’s initial proposal doesn’t mention Wrangell. In fact, projects for named communities in Southeast make up about 7% — or $25.8 million — of the state’s bond.

The five Southeast communities with named projects are: Ketchikan, Craig, Sitka, Hyder and Klawock.

The bond would add to statewide maintenance funds that could be disbursed to Southeast communities, though.

“Am I looking to change some things [about the bond]? Yeah, definitely,” says Ketchikan independent Rep. Dan Ortiz.

His district includes Wrangell and most of the lower panhandle. He says there are some pressing needs in his district. Along with Wrangell’s public safety building, the hydroelectric intertie between Metlakatla and Ketchikan is another priority.

But Ortiz is also cautious about the governor’s strategy of borrowing money.

“I think there’s a little bit of concern, and kind of a wait-and-see attitude,” Ortiz said. “[We’ll] see if we can come to a consensus as to whether or not it truly is in our best interest to indebt us further into the future. With the positive side being that we could begin to take care of some of these significant deferred maintenance issues that we see around the state.”

State Sen. Bert Stedman takes a similar position. The Sitka Republican says with all the federal aid and funding for capital projects likely available, he doesn’t know if this is the time to add debt.

“I’m not convinced that the time to use what bonding capacity we have is today versus a couple years from now, when we may have a less financial ability to maneuver, and there was less cash on hand,” he said.

Stedman also questions whether borrowing heavily would jumpstart Southeast’s economy, which is largely tied to natural resources and tourism.

“The construction projects aren’t going to help fish prices and fish processing — are not going to help cruise ship visitors,” he said.

If approved by the legislature and Alaska voters, the proposal would be Alaska’s first statewide bond in almost 10 years.

Before state lawmakers can start to discuss and negotiate this bond proposal, though, they’ll need to pass a state operating budget.

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