SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


The Mayor and Pool
By Rodney Dial


June 22, 2009

I wasn't going to get into the pool drama until the Mayor (Kiffer) lambasted Mr. Bylund in the matter of what is important to this community.

For your edification Mr. Mayor many of us are tired of you stating that your opinion is somehow more valid because your family has been here since dirt was created. You have one vote, and an opinion just like the rest of us.

Here is mine:

You are doing your cause(s) a disservice my constantly using the "for our children" card to justify increased public spending. I could use the same argument in reverse to point out that high taxes make it difficult for our children, when they grow up, to live here.

This community is very good about taking care of the very young, and very old, but not young adults who need it the most. If you have been reading past SitNews letters then you should know very well that a new pool is of little concern to those who can't even afford rent. A few dollars in extra taxes may not mean much to you, but it may be the final straw in keeping our young adults from leaving Ketchikan. Perhaps your family has been here so long because the jobs when you grew up paid more.

If the Mr. Bylund's of Ketchikan are not allowed to say they want a pool but question how it will be paid for then you shouldn't be allowed to interject an emotional justification into financial decisions.

I am a suspicious person by nature and agree with many in this community who just want the truth and get extremely upset when I feel that I am being "played" (manipulated) by those in power.

Here is a recap of the decision to build a new pool:

The borough formed an Ad Hoc Pool Committee which first met January 2007 and considered the following options, 1. Do nothing, 2. Repair the pool, 3. Build a new larger pool, 4. Build a mega-pool.

The pool committee recommended two proposals before their term expired in January 2008; options number 3, and 4 above, with the preferred option being the mega-pool.

The differences between our existing pool and the preferred option is: 1. approximately 20% larger main pool, 2. large warm pool, 3. Water slide and, 4. benefits of having the pool next to the Recreational Center. To repair the existing pool to last for another 30 years will cost approximately 12 million; to build the mega pool will cost at least $23.5 million. So in essence the voters need to decide if items number 1-4 listed above are worth an additional $11.5 million in debt.

If the new larger pool is built it will cost approximately $30k per month, just to heat.

After two years of research the Pool Committee said that to fund the project a new pool would require a one-half cent sales tax increase for 10 years, or one-quarter cent increase for 15 years.

The Pool committee sent out a survey to the community in late 2008 requesting feedback by December 15th, 2008.

The Borough and City submitted a 2010 fiscal year funding request to the State January 2009. Funding was requested for several local capital projects including the pool. The pool priority level was set as number 6 of 8, with 5 projects deemed more important. Mayor Kiffer played a critical role in setting the priority level of the pool as third most important for the borough, and sixth most important for the community. For reference, Mayor Kiffer told the State that the most important project for the borough was a training center, followed by a maintenance facility.

In the space of two recent borough assembly meetings the borough FOUND enough funds to build the mega pool without additional taxes (so they say).

Proposal will be before the voters this October to purchase bonds to build the mega-pool option.

This is how the facts play out for me:

Repair of the pool was never really an option for the committee because of the down time during repair, and more importantly, the only way to get a larger pool was to build a new one regardless of cost. The pool committee under the direction of Mayor Kiffer created a one-sided document inserted into the Ketchikan Daily News last fall to lobby for a new pool as part of a recreational complex. This document lacked objectivity and presented the case only from the side of supporters. Comments made included use of the Mike Smithers Pool has increased substantially , but no opposing justification was given for an actual decline in use since 2006.

Between January and the end of the legislative session, the borough waited to determine what, if any funding the State would provide for the Pool. The session ended with no capital funds dedicated to construction of a pool. I don't believe this was a shock to local government since the pool had been listed near the bottom of the community wish list / capital funding request . I suspect that one of the reasons the pool was listed as a lower priority than the training center (1), and maintanance facility (2), was because it has the most public support, while the latter have the least. In essence, the borough may be able to get you to tax yourselves for a pool, but has little chance of passing a tax for a maintanance building. Keep this in mind when the Mayor says the pool is necessary to keep our children from drowning.

Also at about the same time the City was debating raising the sales tax rate to fund in town bridge repair. Outcry from the public and Chamber of Commerce convinced the City to actively lobby our legislators for State funding. State funding was obtained for bridge repair and efforts to raise the sales tax ceased.

I believe that Mayor Kiffer knew long ago that our current pool could be RENOVATED without raising taxes, utilizing the existing one-half cent recreational sales tax. This is supported by the fact that the bonds for our recreational center were paid of in May of this year freeing up funds to renovate the pool I believe that he pushed for the larger pool and additional one-half cent sales tax increase to not only fund the mega-pool option, but other projects he also supports.

Keep in mind that a few months back, Mayor Kiffer successfully funneled a half million in cruise ship tax funds to First City Players for a future Performing Arts Center (PAC). This was done under the guise of providing public restrooms for tourists (seriously, he said it). In doing so he also helped defeat a proposal from Council member Thompson that would have required First City Players to pay back the funds if the cruise industry challenged and won a ruling that the use of the funds for that purpose was illegal. I believe that either directly, or indirectly, his intent has been to support the PAC and other non-voter approved projects with money from an increase in the recreational sales tax, possibly as by pass-through from the general fund. On a side note I m willing to bet that sometime in the future after the PAC is built the Mayor will argue for additional tax money to be given to the non-profit each year to maintain the bathrooms.

What changed in this equation was that the State unexpectedly provided funding for the PAC in this years capital budget, and perhaps his realization that the current economic conditions will make passage of any new tax difficult. Further, if the public was asked to fund a sales tax increase for a new pool, the public would likely want more input regarding the aforementioned options from renovation to building the mega-pool.

So in the space of two borough council meetings, the Mayor and Borough Manager somehow FOUND enough money to pay for the mega-pool project without raising taxes, and to CUT the mill rate, from I believe 6.8 to 6.1 mills. Amazingly enough this comes during a time of reduced tourism, declining population including a one year 5% decline is the school population, one-half million annual budget increase to rent the Whitecliff Building, Coast Guard beach purchase of 1.17 million, inability to sell the Reid building, 200k new spending for a new airport shuttle service, and an increase in the borough budget of 1.31 million. Sorry folks, but you are being played as suckers.

This strongly suggests one of only a few options: 1. We have been grossly over taxed, 2. Some of our elected officials are incompetent and were wrong in the past, or are mistaken now, 3. We were being lied to about the need for a new one-half cent sales tax to fund the pool, or 4. They found the leprechaun's pot of gold.

With this in mind, I believe the Mayor made a tactical decision to do the following:

1. Vote for a lower mill rate. The Mayor has always been a tax and spend guy, just read his last letter to me. This way he can say, we can afford the pool, library, etc, because your taxes are going down. Rest assured they will increase once the projects are completed and the bills come due. We are also likely to have a double digit increase in property assessments next year. The Mayor can always prove me wrong and lower the tax cap; what are the chances you think that will happen?

2. Fund the project without a sales tax increase to prevent the Chamber of Commerce from opposing the project like they did when the City attempted a sales tax increase.

3. Allow the public to only vote on one pool option, which is his choice for the mega-pool. On a side note, the Mayor also supports building a new library 4 times larger than our current one.

4. Play the "Child Card" and portray this as a life or death issue, even though he told the state that a maintenance building was more important than a pool.

A few things you should consider:

1. Don't base your decision on a new pool on the fact that the mill rate was lowered by a small amount. It is still over 600% higher than it was in the 80 s (even higher if property value increases are considered). The property tax rate can be raised just as quickly, and will be if we as a community overextend ourselves.

2. Even if you vote for a new pool it is not scheduled to be built for two years.

3. If we vote no, we still have a working pool that with proper maintenance can last years. Don't buy into the hype that the sky "pool roof" is falling.

4. Remember Schoenbar . You were told 9 million; final cost was over 20 million.

5. Even if you feel we need a new pool the longer we wait the greater the chance we can get the state to fund it. We start by demanding that the borough list it as community priority number one.

6. The longer we wait the more we can save for a future pool now that the recreational center bonds are paid off.

7. The ability to pay for this pool out of existing taxes depends upon the borough receiving the projected tax revenue for the coming year. If the numbers are low, taxes will rise.

8. Our population is declining and is projected to continue to decline for many years.

9. Other fees, such as an 11.4% one year increase in water rates, diesel surcharges, etc. are already making Ketchikan an expensive place to live. We should repair what we have vs. building new.

10. The cruise industry has already said that they will cut passenger counts by about 140k next year, with other cuts likely. The city collects $7 per passenger, so a 140k cut equals close to a million in known lost revenue for the City next year, plus about $350k lost cruise ship tax revenue for the borough.

Finally, I would like to address the Mayor's continued statements that in the 60' s, before Ketchikan had a pool children drowned every summer, and that now with a pool he can not even remember when the last child drowned.

Mr. Mayor, I actually know a thing or two about unintentional deaths and injuries in Alaska. I was a State representative for many years for the Alaska Risk Watch Injury Prevention Program. Your assertion that Ketchikan is somehow less likely to suffer a water death/injury than any other southeast community without a pool is not based upon any evidence, study, or statistic.

In fact the only thing you have actually been right about is that water deaths have decreased over the last several decades. There is clear and convincing evidence that the decrease is do to the following:

1. Increased use of personal floatation devices (PFD's). Since your recollection of the 60's is so vivid, compare the importance of PFDs now, to then. Just like seatbelts did for cars, and helmets did for bicycles, PFDs dramatically reduced water deaths. As it currently stands 90% of water deaths are due to PFDs not being worn when they should be. For further research see USCG statistics and various programs such as Kids don't float etc.

2. Increased awareness and safety devices. One of the largest factors in water deaths years ago was ..POOLS. Yes, it's true. Pool barrier equipment and lifeguards decreased pool deaths. This is still a primary hazard in areas in the lower 48 that have a lot of recreational pools.

3. Better medical care. Many water deaths are prevented now due to faster emergency response and better medical care.

4. Laws, regulation changes, such as mandatory PFD use, etc.

5. Swim programs. This is frequently mentioned as a factor influencing the decline in water deaths, but is not quantifiable. As mentioned above, if swim programs resulted in a statistically measurable drop in water deaths, then one community with a pool would be safer than another without. Although it is safe to say that learning to swim has saved some from drowning, it also must be said that others died from an over confidence in their ability which led to a fatal decision, e.g. swimming out too far, not wearing a PFD, etc. Swim programs help, but certainly not to the degree purported to by the Mayor.

If you look at water deaths as a whole, they can be broken down into several categories:

1. Deaths due to failure to wear a PFD, primarily in recreational and commercial boating activities. This accounts for the majority of all water deaths.

2. Deaths due to exposure, e.g. hypothermia.

3. Deaths due to environmental reasons such as strong currents, rip-tides, etc. Kills both swimmers and non swimmers.

4. Deaths contributed to alcohol / drugs and water.

5. Deaths due to exhaustion e.g. swam out too far.

6. Deaths from medical reasons, e.g. cramp, heart attack, etc.

7. Deaths from a failure to properly supervise; parental responsibility, lifeguard, etc.

8. Water deaths of children under 4 who are most likely to drown in bathtubs, buckets and toilets.

Unfortunately, pools and swim programs have a limited effect on the primary causes for the water deaths mentioned above. I realize it is not politically correct, but it is true regardless. The American Academy of Pediatrics does not recommend swim training for children under 4 due to the natural attraction kids have with water.

If you look at the leading causes of unintentional deaths and injuries to our children, the percentage of water deaths preventable due to a community pool is statistically unmeasurable. Even when taking ALL water deaths into account, by age 15 suicides outnumber water deaths by 450 percent in Alaska.

A pool is an important recreational asset for a community with a limited ability to reduce water deaths and injuries. To somehow suggest that it is anything more is disingenuous. All the swim training in the world will not prevent most of the causes of water deaths listed above. Michael Phelps will get hypothermia just like anyone else.

Mr. Mayor, stop trying to scare people and stick to the facts.

And yes, I want a pool as well .And guess what, we already have one.

My vote is that you stop playing reindeer games, postpone a public vote, list the pool as a top community project and seek state funding next year, and each year thereafter until you obtain it. Unless and until, maintain what we have with the EXISTING recreational sales tax, and keep this community financially sound and an affordable place to live.

Rodney Dial
Ketchikan, AK

About: "Average taxpayer"

Received June 22, 2008 - Published June 22, 2009


Related Viewpoint:

letter Re: Ketchikan Pool Bond Vote By Dave Kiffer

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