SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


The Mayor Responds
By Dave Kiffer


March 30, 2009

Dear Rodney,

Thank you for writing and expressing your concerns.

As you noted, I can't answer all of your questions but I will try to respond to the ones that I can.

First of I all, I have never said that it is "always a good time to buy or build something" regardless of the economic climate.

What I have said was that just because a time is uncertain economically doesn't necessarily mean it is a bad time to move forward. By the same token, a period of flush economics isn't always the best time to forward either. It depends on the project and how much it is truly needed. Not wanted, but needed.

If you look over Ketchikan's history you will see numerous times when the community moved ahead on important projects not because it was the right "time" but because it was the right thing to do. You can go all the way back to 1902 when the city council decided to build a boardwalk from the downtown area to the newtown area despite the fact that the town's largest employer - the Fidalgo Cannery - had just shut down indefinitely. Even after the pulp mill closed in 1997, the community did not dry up and blow away as some suggested it would. Ketchikan moved ahead into its future and that is what we must do today.

The second contention, that I believe more money is always the solution is not correct either. What I do believe is that sometimes things cost what they cost. Too frequently we make the mistake in Ketchikan in believing that we can get something "on the cheap."

The Schoenbar project was a perfect example of trying so hard to cut costs that we ended up spending millions of dollars later because we made mistakes in our rush to get a "bargain." Some bargain.

On the other side of the coin is the Fawn Mountain project, in which we had a more realistic assessment of what the new school would cost and we stuck to that - despite proposals to go "cheaper" again - and we now have a facility that meets our needs now and into the long term future.

Government can't solve every problem, but it is also an Alaskan and Ketchikan myth that somehow the private sector has been solely responsible for the community growth. Every industry that the town has had since 1900 has benefited from significant steps by "government" to improve the economic climate.

Now, on to your specific questions!

As you know, the library is a subject close to my heart because my wife has worked at the public library for eighteen years.

Yes, I believe we need a new library and a larger one than we currently have. Despite all the gloom and doom about the internet replacing research and computers replacing books, the reality is that use of the Ketchikan public library has jumped dramatically in the last decade (despite the overall town population decreasing). In general, library use tends to increase further in a declining economy because people suddenly need to find less expensive sources for entertainment and information.

The borough assembly has agreed with the city proposal to increase the size of the library from 6,000 square feet to 23,000 square feet, primarily because if you are going to spend millions of dollars to create or replace a government facility you might as well build it so that it doesn't become obsolete in 10 years.

As to why that specific new size, it was based on research statewide and with the American Library Association to determine the size of libraries in other communities. The 23,000 square foot size is actually the normal size library for a town of 14,000 residents, so even at that large of an increase, we are not "overbuilding." We are simply making up for years of neglecting one of our main community assets.

Historically, the Ketchikan library has suffered from the "on the cheap" syndrome. For years it was a "room" in city hall. Then it was moved "temporarily" to the Centennial Building because the state was footing most of the bill for that new building. "Temporarily" turned into 40+ years.

That building is "state of the art" for the mid 1960s when there were no computers and no one thought about handicapped accessibility. I invite anyone who thinks the community is adequately served by the current configuration to actually visit the library and see for yourself. Visit during a library "program" like Jeff Brown's Statehood Magic Show this last weekend, when you have 90 people crowded into the children's annex downstairs or a typical weekly story hour when there are 50 people in the children's library.

Will borough residents pay more for a larger building? Yes, as will city residents. But those same borough and city residents are also using the building more than ever before. The major costs in operating the library are staff costs and even though the building will be larger there are no plans to increase staff, therefore "quadrupling" the size of the building does not lead to "quadrupling" the operation costs which all residents will be responsible for.

The library project is just a plan at this point and there is still time for the community to make its wishes known regarding site and size and I encourage anyone with specific concerns to contact the city.

I am not aware of the exact plans the city has for the renovation of the Centennial Building and what tax mechanisms it may use. I know the city has expressed interest in remodeling the Centennial Building into a new museum but that project is even further down the line than a new library right now.

With regards to the mall, I have had several conversations with the new mall owner about what sort of government projects would make sense in his facility and he does seem willing to look at ways the building could be reinforced to meet the library needs. I have encouraged him to meet with the city to discuss it.

The pool is a need. Not a want. I can name more half a dozen of my young friends and acquaintances who died in drowning accidents in the 1960s. It was the norm for at least one or two children to die in the water every summer back then. Talk to their parents about whether a pool and swimming lessons for Ketchikan school children are a "want."

If anyone is under the misguided impression that our existing pool will continue to operate for longer than a couple of years, please visit the facility and ask to see the "mechanicals" and the area under the pool deck. In 1972, we built a pool with a lifespan of 25 years. We have since bought some more "life" with some expensive rehabs. We are now at the point where we need a "new" pool. If we do not move ahead in the next couple of years, we will have no pool.

Pools are not something that we can do "on the cheap." Does that mean that we absolutely have to spend $25 million for a replacement? Of course not. It is up the community to decide the appropriate size of the pool and the appropriate cost. No matter what happens, there will be a public vote, but I encourage people to get involved in the process now to make sure that what goes before the voters is the best option for our community.

I am not an expert on education costs. All I can say is that local funding for schools from the borough is also at or near an all time high, so questions anyone has about how that money is being spent are best directed toward the school board. I will say that members of my family have been avid users of the Ketchikan education system for nearly 100 years and you will hear no complaint from me about how well it educates our children.

I have had the pleasure of being in Juneau three times this Spring lobbying for local projects. I can assure you that regional energy projects have been vigorously lobbied for by local elected officials. The reason they are not at the top of the community "priority list" is because they are regional priorities. The local priority list focuses specifically on what needs that to be done within the community. A replacement for a 60 year old city fire hall and a 40 year old surgical area at the hospital must be at the top of any community priority list.

But, in fact, there is a much greater likelihood that the energy projects such as the Metlakatla intertie and the Whitman Lake project will probably get done before the other local "priorities" because the state government has made it clear that regional electrical solutions are one of its highest priorities.

Here's one very good reason why it was acceptable to use CPV funding to help fund a Performing Arts Center downtown. Anyone who spends every day of the summer downtown as I do knows that one of the most crucial needs is public restrooms. Even with the city's brand new public restroom facility at Berth Three, there still aren't nearly enough bathrooms for the thousands of visitors who need them. The PAC will have public bathrooms (at a significantly lower cost than the city paid for the Berth Three ones). End of argument.

So why don't we use CPV funds for other projects (museum, library, fire station)? It has been suggested that the Planning Liaison and Economic Development Advisory Committee consider such proposals in the future. One thing we have to do be careful about is that one person's "substitutional spending" is another person's "money laundering" and we need be sure that we are doing the right thing with the money.

The borough assembly will also consider - shortly - a proposal to give the city approximately $1 million of CPV funding for several projects, including work at Berth 1 and 2 and replacement of the Creek Street boardwalk.

The South Point Higgins beach purchase was approved by 71 percent of the voters in the borough, so it is going ahead. The original plan was to fund a significant portion of it with a grant from the Rasmuson Foundation. The Foundation recently announced it will not be making large grants this year. No one knows exactly what that means for either future grants or funding for the beach at this point. In the meantime, we are planning to use money from borough land and property sales (including the Reid Building) to fund at least part of the beach cost.

If you have a plan for dealing with the sawdust pile in Ward Cove, I would love to hear it! In fact, plans for anything regarding Ward Cove are very, very, very welcome at this point.

Wow, this response has gotten really long. I better sign off before I overwhelm the SITNEWS servers. If anyone has any other questions, please contact me and I will try to answer them individually.

Rodney, I hope that this answers at least some your questions and I do appreciate your efforts and interest.

We may not always agree on the right path to take but we do agree that we need to make Ketchikan a better place to work and live.

Dave Kiffer
Mayor, Ketchikan Gateway Borough
Ketchikan, AK


Received March 29, 2009 - Published March 30, 2009


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