Assembly postpones tennis vote again as controversy extends to Legislature

nherz@adn.comNovember 20, 2013 

Another Anchorage Assembly meeting concluded Tuesday without a vote on whether to spend state money to build new tennis courts. It's a question that has spawned controversy that now extends to the Alaska Legislature, where a key House member earlier in the day accused Mayor Dan Sullivan of being "deceptive" in how he asked for the tennis money.

The session Tuesday was the third meeting with tennis courts on the agenda. The assembly heard from the public on the issue, but ran out of time for a vote. By moving to conclude public testimony, though, the assembly increased the likelihood it could vote on the issue at its next meeting, in two weeks.

In an interview Tuesday, Rep. Bill Stoltze, co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, said his discussion with Sullivan about the tennis courts left him with a much less expensive project in mind than the one now being proposed for the Turnagain neighborhood.

Sullivan disputed Stoltze' account.

Stoltze, a Chugiak Republican, said that language for the courts was added to the $37 million grant on a request from Rep. Lindsey Holmes, R-Anchorage, and discussions with Sullivan.

But he said that Holmes told him that the tennis courts needed $4 million at most and that Sullivan never indicated otherwise -- even as Sullivan asked Stoltze for flexibility in how to spend the grant money.

Sullivan is now supporting a measure in the Anchorage Assembly that would spend $7.7 million of the grant on a recreation center that would house the courts.

"There was never any discussion beyond $4 million," Stoltze said in a telephone interview.

"I think it's outside of what the Mayor had asked for, and he clearly deployed some deceptive practices," he said. "Next time I'm not going to trust the mayor of Anchorage. He's been less than forthright."

The mayor disputed that, saying that he was "disturbed" by Stoltze's comments, and he questioned how Stoltze could feel deceived when the two never discussed a specific price tag for the courts.

"I have no idea what Mr. Stoltze is talking about," he said in an interview. "I think some people, now that this is getting controversial, are not willing to take the heat on the work they did on it."

The dispute came as the Assembly was preparing late Tuesday to consider a pair of competing proposals that would determine how the grant money is spent.

One, sponsored by Assemblyman Tim Steele and supported by Sullivan, would spend the $7.7 million on the recreation center with tennis courts.

A second, sponsored by Assemblyman Bill Starr, would set aside just $4 million of the grant into an escrow account to purchase an existing tennis facility owned by the Alaska Club on South Bragaw Street near the Northway Mall.

State officials have said that the city cannot use the grant for that purpose, but Starr is anticipating that the Legislature would re-grant the money next year.

The Assembly did not vote on either measure Tuesday evening, moving to postpone a decision to its next meeting.

In an interview at the meeting Tuesday, Sullivan said that he had specifically asked for flexibility in the state grant language because he knew that costs for the projects proposed by the city were likely to change.

He noted that the city had not had "exact numbers" on any of the projects earmarked in the grant at the time the capital budget was being worked on last spring.

Beyond the recreation center, those projects included planned renovations and upgrades to city ice arenas that were being studied in an engineering report, Sullivan said.

"That was the reason for flexibility -- it gave us a chance to really harden up the numbers a little bit, and make sure that when we did finally allocate, that we were working with more refined numbers," he said. "I don't see anything wrong with that."

Sullivan, a Republican who's running for lieutenant governor, said that the request to the Legislature for the courts, from the Alaska Tennis Association, had asked for $7.2 million in grant funding.

And he said that Stoltze -- or at least his staff -- had received a copy.

"So, I don't think anybody had any illusions that it was going to be $4 million," he said.

Stoltze said that he never met with tennis association officials, and had not seen their request -- though he added that he "can't say 100 percent that it never landed in my office."

Holmes, the representative who Stoltze says gave him the $4 million ceiling for the recreation center, said in a text message Tuesday evening that she was unavailable for comment. She was rewarded with a seat on the House Finance Committee in January when she switched from being a Democrat to a Republican.

It's not clear how Stoltze's comments would influence the upcoming Assembly decision on how much money to spend on the recreation center. Assembly Chairman Ernie Hall, who has backed Sullivan on the recreation center, met with Stoltze earlier Tuesday and said his position remained unchanged.

Reach Nathaniel Herz at nherz@adn.com or 257-4311

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