SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska


The Whitecliff factor
By Rodney Dial


July 31, 2010

Mr. Thompson, I agree with your letter and share your frustration with the way the Whitecliff project has progressed. Here is my take on the issue as I see it over the last several years:

Borough officials convince themselves that that Reid Building is inadequate for borough offices. They start hyping themselves into believing that mold, lack of compliance with current building codes, etc. is justification for an entirely new building, vs. renovation of the existing one.

During this timeframe the Borough Government is also debating what to do with the vacant, Whitecliff building. Mayor Kiffer (borough assembly member at the time), who is the Executive Director of Historic Ketchikan in combination with non-profit groups, obtain borough assembly approval to place on the ballot the following: Renovation of the Whitecliff Building for a combined Performing Arts Center and Senior Citizens Center.

Significant private resources were spent to sway the public to vote for this project, and the voter was told it would only cost them 50 cents, per $100 purchase (sales tax increase) to fund. The public voted and said... hell no.

The following is my opinion on what happened next:

The borough assembly realized that if the public would not pay 50 cents to fund a Performing Art / Senior Center, there was ZERO chance they would vote for bonds for a new borough building. Just like many other groups in this community, renovation of the existing building was not good enough. The borough building had to be new, bigger and better. The fact that the population was declining was of no consideration, and they convinced themselves that "code compliance" was a significant concern (mold and maintenance issues could have been remedied).

I want to digress for a moment and mention code compliance. Look at any major project in recent history in this town, where one group is pushing to "build new" vs. "renovate" and you will see code compliance as a justification. Usually this is in regards to the American with Disabilities Act (ADA), or Fire Codes. In the past, proposals for new Borough offices, new Pool, new Library, new Fire Station, etc. have all listed "code compliance" as a justification for a new structure.

Think about that for a minute. When the ADA law was passed in 1990, the millions of buildings in this country did not instantly become illegal, or obsolete. Existing buildings had a duty to remove barriers to access IF readily achievable, and new construction had to be made accessible to the disabled... that's it. But look at how local government sells these projects and you will always see "code compliance" as a reason to build new.

In the Borough's / City's legislative write-up the very first reason that is given as to why the community should spend $11.1 million to build a new fire station is that the existing one is not "ADA /other codes" compliant. To local government I would ask this: How many firefighters can't get their wheelchairs up the stairs of the existing building? Yes, I am being sarcastic, but my point is that when you try to "baffle the public with bull" vs. making your case on the merits you breed distrust. No, I do not want to pay $11.1 million for a new fire station to comply with NEW building codes, but I may support the project if you can show a demonstrated need / benefit for other reasons.

I got off on that side note because code compliance of the Reid building was used as one of the insurmountable reasons why the borough had to have something new, vs. simply renovate the existing building.

Anyway, the Borough moved forward with the process for new offices and a request for bids was issued for a new facility. Let's stop here for a moment and consider the governmental bid process. A bid, or request for a proposal can be written in a manner to "include or exclude" almost anyone, or anything. I believe that the bid process in this manner was somehow unduly influenced by Mayor Kiffer, and his desire to "Save Whitecliff" as a historical property.

Mayor Kiffer is an intelligent and gifted man, and I have a great deal of respect for him. However, he has clearly shown through his actions and writings that he leads more by emotion, and less by logic. This leadership style, plus his long term involvement in Historic Ketchikan, leads me to believe that Whitecliff was favored to be borough offices prior to creation of the bid requirements, and that the bid was tailor made for this purpose.

Keep in mind that when Dawson Construction bought the building from the borough they only paid a $50k retainer to hold it, and did not pay the purchase price until it was clear that the borough was moving forward to use Whitecliff for governmental offices.

As you may remember, other entities submitted proposals to provide office space for the borough, including the old bowling alley building, and the Mall. Both were significantly less expensive with ample parking. Both were dismissed as options by the borough based on technicalities and / or the way the bid request was constructed.

On a side note here, not long after the borough entered into the contract with Dawson for the Whitecliff building, the Mall sold for a little over 3 million (less that one third of what Whitcliff will cost us).

The borough could have bought the Mall and leased out sections for a new public library to the City, and for local stores. With a little creative effort the borough could have had new offices; the City a new library, for almost nothing in the long term as the rent from existing Mall tenants could have subsidized this project. Politics killed this proposal, and the reasons why the Mall was not used were NOT insurmountable. Both Anchorage and Juneau have libraries in private Malls, and Anchorage has some governmental offices in them as well.

So here we are today. After two years of begging, the borough has faced the reality that the State is not likely to fund the Whitecliff building purchase. So what are their choices?

1. Put the issue before the public for a vote to approve bonds, or
2. Deplete borough reserves to fund this project without voter approval

As Mr. Thompson pointed out in his letter, his peers have selected choice number two.

Lets not be naive here Mr. Thompson, your fellow assembly members are not stupid. Put this before the voters and its DOA. I have not met a single person diluted enough to believe that Whitecliff was the most cost effective choice for borough offices. Several of you who were supposed to be safeguarding public funds put emotion before substance. Had you been representing us, you would have never sold the Whitecliff building in the first place, and simply put before the voters a proposal to renovate a building we already owned.

You (Assembly) knew what the public would say and through your actions essentially made the determination that you knew better.

As a result we are now at that stage where lack of planning on the assembly's part will at some point constitute an emergency on the part of the taxpayer. We are bleeding a half a million a year for your new digs that we didn't get to vote on. You could have rented other existing property for a fraction of the cost, and at some point renovated the old building for what we will spend on rent.

Mr. Thompson you can still make a difference. I would like to see you submit the following proposals to the assembly for an up or down vote:

1. Ballot proposal prohibiting the assembly from entering into any contract worth more than million dollars without voter approval.
2. Ballot proposal for the voters instituting a strict property tax cap (existing one is too weak).
3. Term limits for Assembly members

The best minds are not in government. If any were, business would hire them away ­Ronald Regan

Rodney Dial
Ketchikan, AK


Received July 29, 2010 - Published July 31, 2010


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letterBack to old tricks. By Glen Thompson

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