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Big Lake moves toward city status, but some residents worry about taxation

Zaz Hollander

WASILLA -- An Anchorage playground is growing up.

Some Big Lake residents want to make a second-class city out of this community known for a half-century as the place Southcentral comes to recreate.

Today Big Lake is a growing hub for nearly 3,400 permanent residents scattered across 100 square miles of land -- and 13 square miles of it water -- but with a dense town center.

Big Lake's library, post office, grocery, airport, elementary school and fire station all sit in a three-block area along with a couple of parks, a few shops and restaurants, a bar and two liquor stores.

"We have a real small town center," said Ina Mueller, an event manager who serves as president of the Big Lake Chamber of Commerce. "We want to protect our nice little town center."

Mueller and other supporters promise no new taxes as part of the incorporation proposal.

Instead, the hypothetical City of Big Lake would run solely on the property taxes residents already pay the Mat-Su Borough - $1.2 million this year. The city's two employees would handle road work and possibly parks. That's it. No fire, no schools, no police, at least not in the immediate future.

"We're already paying property taxes," said retired alpaca farmer Jim Faiks, the petitioner's representative on the incorporation bid. "We can do it for nothing."

Faiks, who serves on the local community council, said he submitted an incorporation petition with 200 signatures from residents to the state Local Boundary Commission last Thursday. The proposal calls for two city employees.

Some local business people say they worry incorporation could lead to a sales tax down the road.

"Sales tax is usually the first thing they do, which means the more business you do, the more sales tax you have to pay," said Jerry Hill, general manager of the Big Lake IGA, a grocery store in town. "I wouldn't mind if it was really going to help us now but I think right now we're a little bit too small."

Incorporation backers say a sales tax isn't in the plans at this point. They want residents to focus on fact that the city, as proposed, could be funded with existing property taxes.

The process of incorporation can take more than a year. If the state signs off on the proposal, the decision will come before Big Lake residents for a vote.

A SEAT AT THE TABLE

Homesteaded a century ago, Big Lake grew as Anchorage residents bought cabins or homes for summers on the fun-loving lake and winter snowmachining and ice fishing.

More recently, however, a year-round population took hold. People started retiring here, Faiks said. Big Lake's "little old cabins" expanded into nice homes after the 1996 Miller's Reach fire that destroyed more than 400 buildings and burned over 56 square miles, he said.

Supporters of incorporation say Big Lake deserves city status now.

The city would be the borough's largest by far, but bigger than only Houston by population. Its population would be a little more than half Palmer's, a little less than half Wasilla's.

Along with road authority, incorporation would give them equal footing with other governments as local projects develop such as the new Goose Creek Correctional Center 12 miles away, a railroad spur under construction from Port MacKenzie, and a proposed road linking the port and the Parks Highway.

"The road from the port to the Parks they're talking about, that would be a state-owned road," Mueller said. "The path of least resistance would be to take Big Lake Road and make it the port to Parks ... right through the middle of town. We don't want semis going past our elementary school."

The chamber voted last year to support incorporation, she said.

ROAD WORK

Faiks, a 68-year-old longtime resident and community council member, said he opposed the idea of incorporation when it first surfaced. He didn't want his taxes to go up.

Then, he said, he realized second-class city status would give Big Lake residents say over 100 miles of roads -- 80 miles of them dirt -- without new taxes.

The borough plans to collect about $1.2 million in property taxes from Big Lake residents for road maintenance this year, according to borough documents. Faiks points out that the borough only plans to spend about $600,000 on road work.

That leaves a lot left over to spend locally, he said.

But along with the just under $600,000 on road work, the borough also plans to spend additional money on supplies and other costs, according to the budget for the Big Lake Road Service Area, or RSA. A total of $205,000 will remain unspent, according to Borough Manager John Moosey.

That money will go into a capital improvement fund for future projects in the road service area, Moosey said. It's illegal for the borough to spend it anywhere else.

"They believe they could manage the RSA contract if it's a city more to the community's benefit than we can. That's their opinion," he said. "If it's approved by the citizens, we'll work here to make them successful. We want to leave this vote up to the citizens."

THE PROCESS

The state is currently reviewing the signatures submitted last week, as well as a transition plan filed with the Big Lake petition, said Brent Williams, local government specialist with the state boundary commission. That review should be done within 45 days.

Next, a public comment period will start, Williams said. Then the commission will issue a report on whether the petition meets state standards for incorporation based on the petition and the comments. Another comment period will follow the release of the report, followed by a second report.

One more public hearing will be held, he said. Then the commission will make a decision on the incorporation. If the commission approves, then the issue will go to local voters.

"It's a long process," Williams said.

The state gets few bids for incorporation, he said. The last one approved was Gustavus in 2004. The commission approved incorporation for Naukati Bay but voters defeated it in 2006.

This is not Big Lake's first brush with incorporation. Two prior attempts failed. Voters actually passed on attempt in 1974, Williams said. The vote was 76 to 64. But voting problems forced another election. That one failed 85 to 78.

A later bid in 1987 failed outright along with a parallel property tax increase, he said.

Some tax-wary Anchorage residents with Big Lake cabins changed their voter registration addresses just so they could vote down the later incorporation proposal, Faiks said.

City supporters say they hope this time's the charm.

"The thing around Big Lake ... the phrase people use is we don't want it because we don't want things to change," Mueller said. "Well, if anybody's had their eyes open at all, things are changing dramatically. We want to be proactive in the change that is to come."

Reach Zaz Hollander at zhollander@adn.com or 257-4317.

 


By ZAZ HOLLANDER
zhollander@adn.com