Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Municipal conference would prioritize projects based on boroughwide benefit

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

When it comes to legislative funding, “we” gets more attention than “me.”

That’s the idea behind the formation of a Kenai Peninsula Municipal Conference, an organization that will lobby for legislative funding for projects on a boroughwide basis.

John Torgerson, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, rolled out the plan to form a municipal conference at a Kenai Peninsula Community Development Forum held Oct. 24 at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.

He hopes to have involvement from the borough government, city governments, chambers of commerce and tribal governments from across the borough. Representatives will consider projects from Hope to Homer, Seward to Tyonek, and vote on which ones to pass on to the Legislature for support.

“This organization will take these projects from a regional level and make them a boroughwide issue,” Torgerson said.

Instead of Seward stumping for its own funding, or Kenai seeking money for its issues, a municipal conference would prioritize projects on a boroughwide level. A project would need to win the votes of three-fourths of the members of the municipal conference to make it on the priorities list.

“That’s how you get out of that regional, ‘I want to build my road in my backyard,’ approach. This is about the borough … all of us together,” Torgerson said.

“In that statement comes the strength of the organization because it is about the borough and it’s about priorities, and it has a pretty high bar to make the list.”

The organization is in its infancy. Bylaws are being drawn up, with reference to other municipal conferences in the state, Torgerson said. The ins and outs of how it will work are still being decided.

Torgerson said he is past president of a previous Kenai Peninsula municipal conference that was started in 1986 by former borough Mayor Stan Thompson. Funding for that organization fizzled out in 1997, he said. By that time Torgerson was in the Legislature.

Membership in that conference operated on a dues basis, with governments contributing 10 cents per resident and business organizations paying a flat $100 fee. Torgerson said the budget in the 1990s was $8,000 to $10,000 a year to cover overhead costs and lobbying trips to Juneau.

How this incarnation is funded will be up to members.

“Every year you vote your dues and ask to be funded,” Torgerson said. “And it changes. It’s sort of a living, breathing document that changes along with the times.”

He anticipates support for the idea.

“I have a feeling it will be well-met with because I think everybody sees the need for a unified voice when we can agree, and when we can’t we need to understand what’s going on in other jurisdictions in the borough. We’re all the borough,” he said.

The Kenai Peninsula Municipal Conference doesn’t preclude individual cities or the borough government from seeking funding for their own projects outside the conference. But where legislative priorities align, they’ll have the support of a group representative of the entire borough, not just one section of it.

Torgerson expects the group will consider alternative energy projects, school funding issues and a lot of roads projects — like a proposed Sterling Highway bypass around Cooper Landing and designating a section of the Sterling Highway as a scenic byway.

“There’s no limit to the issues, except what people want to vote on,” he said.

Even if there isn’t enough support to get a project on the organization’s legislative funding priority list, just having a discussion about it will be valuable, he said.

“A lot of the benefit of this is not only to produce that (priority list), but to get everybody in the same room and figure out how to face problems and address them as neighbors of the borough.”

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