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Remodel back on track after referendum found insufficient


A handful of citizens applied for a referendum earlier this week that would have allowed voters to choose whether or not the $9.9 million police and municipal building remodel project should move forward.

Gerry Whitethorn and Don Koenigs spearheaded the effort and turned in the referendum for certification on January 19, which included 16 of the required 10 signatures needed in order to apply. It would require 125 total signatures if the referendum was approved.

The application, in part, states, “information regarding the long-term operation and maintenance expenses associated with the facility are unknown or yet to be determined.”

It also states the annual operation and maintenance budget and service contracts should be presented as part of the ballot measure.

When asked if he’d like to comment on the petition or which aspects of the project’s funding he thought were extravagant, Whitethorn said he didn’t want to say anything until the process moves further along.

“I just want the people to get to vote on a $10 million project,” Whitethorn said.

Koenigs, a former Petersburg Mayor and City Manager, didn’t return a message for an interview request.

Petersburg Borough Attorney Jim Brennan reviewed the referendum application and found it to be insufficient, finding that it is in violation of restrictions on referenda set forth in the Alaska Constitution and Petersburg Borough Code regarding the use of a referendum in the dedication or allocation of revenues.

Brennan’s opinion states, “The restrictions upon a referendum contained in the Alaska Constitution and Petersburg Borough Charter and Code are, for purposes of analysis in the case, the same as the restrictions on the power of an initiative.”

(An initiative introduces legislation and a referendum appeals it.)

“In both cases, one of the ‘core objectives’ of the constitutional limitation regarding appropriations is ‘to preserve legislative discretion by ensuring that the legislature, and only the legislature, retains control of the allocation of state assets among competing needs,’” Brennan wrote.

Brennan cited the court case Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers, Inc v. Kenai Peninsula Borough, when a group of citizens approved an initiative that would require prior voter approval for any borough capital project costing more than $1 million.

In that case, the court stated, “…referring capital projects to voters…will almost invariably result in voters ‘vetoing’ certain projects, at which point there is nothing the Borough can do to go forward with a project…but the voters’ ability to veto a capital project, even prior to budget approval, infringes on the Assembly’s ability to allocate resources among competing uses because there is nothing that the Assembly can do to appropriate money for that project.”

The Petersburg Borough Assembly unanimously approved at its January 19 meeting a resolution for the funding plan earlier this month and the first reading of an ordinance that directs a portion of those funds to the project, pending action on the referendum.

For the moment, unless someone decides to re-write the referendum or appeal the borough’s decision that it’s insufficient, the remodel project is back on track to go out to bid next week, Borough Manager Steve Giesbrecht said.

For his part, Koenigs is no stranger to projects involving requests for a new or better building. It’s been a concern of borough staff dating back to 1983.

In a memo to Koenigs, who served as the city manager at the time, dated October 24, 1983, the then Fire Chief Norman Fredricksen requested a meeting between Koenigs and other staff to address the same concerns current staff and officials have over the building.

Reasons cited in the memo include: “present facilities inadequate, unsafe and unhealthy, poor toilet system, poor lighting, heating and ventilation,” and the list goes on.

Several police chiefs over the years have logged similar complaints.

In 1994, 2006 and 2012 funding was sought for and or plans were drafted and paid for by Petersburg’s municipal government. The then city and now borough has easily spent more than $2 million coming up with various plans to build a new facility or remodel the current building, only to see those designs gather dust in municipal filing cabinets.

According to borough data, since 2012 it has spent $788,962 on designs for the project.

After cost estimates came in higher than expected for the current project last December, designers and borough staff found ways to cut a little more than $673,000 from the budget and brought the total construction cost down to around $7 million.

As far as operations and maintenance on the facility goes, costs may decrease as several energy efficiencies will be incorporated into the new building.

“Our projections show that the renovated building will cost significantly less to operate than it does currently,” MRV Architect Corey Wall wrote. “The building presently uses electrical power to heat the police station and oil heat for the remainder. “Our electrical engineer has projected that the renovated facility will use a maximum of 100kW—the same amount it currently uses. So, in effect, the building will be saving the price currently paid for oil heating.”

A little more than half of the funding for the remodel project comes from state and other grants. The remainder will come from the borough’s general and property and development funds, land sale proceeds, E911 surcharge funds and an inter fund loan from the electric department.


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