Assembly approves $4.4 million for W. Anchorage tennis courts

Casey Grove

After months of disagreement on using state money to build an indoor recreation center with tennis courts in West Anchorage, the Anchorage Assembly voted Tuesday night to spend a little more than $4.4 million on the facility, significantly less than original requests.

Alaska Tennis Association President Allen Clendaniel said he and other association members were disappointed -- they had originally asked the state Legislature for $7.2 million to build the courts, slated for the Turnagain neighborhood -- but added they were glad to finally have a decision on the funds.

"If I had to describe the last few months, all I can say is 'bizarre,' " Clendaniel said just after the Assembly's vote. "Democracy, I guess, isn't always pretty."

The ongoing dispute has locked up $37 million in state funds the Alaska legislators appropriated to the municipality for a variety of projects. Assembly members needed to vote on accepting the entire pot of money, but reaching an agreement on what portion would go to the Turnagain complex, part of what is called the Dempsey-Anderson Campus, proved difficult. A big chunk of that money -- $10.5 million -- was aimed at expanding and upgrading Dempsey-Anderson, as well as making repairs to Sullivan Arena and Ben Boeke Ice Arena.

"As a person on the Assembly, I'm embarrassed this took more than two meetings," Assembly chair Ernie Hall said before Tuesday's meeting. Debate over multiple Turnagain tennis court proposals has been going on since early October.

And a resolution seemed unreachable at times during Tuesday's meeting. The final vote followed about two hours of dialogue between Assembly members and several votes to make changes to the two most recent proposals on how to spend the money. Nearly everyone on the Assembly expressed frustration as the process dragged on.

Lawmakers ultimately voted to approve a resolution by member Amy Demboski, but only once they had voted to remove a condition that would have tied using the state funds to a future vote by Anchorage residents on a bond proposal to pay for the facility's remaining construction costs, and its operation and maintenance expenses.

"I think it's a great idea to put it before the voters," Demboski said before the resolution's passage, urging her fellow Assembly members to vote against stripping the requirement for a vote. "It's not my decision. It's not my money. It's the taxpayers' money."

Assembly member Jennifer Johnston, whose amendment removed linking the funds to a popular vote, said the Assembly needed to "take a breather," accept the state money and let the Tennis Association work on fundraising to make up the difference.

"Please, let's just allocate the money and go on with our business," Johnston said.

The amended version passed 9-2, with Demboski and Patrick Flynn voting against it.

It was unclear if Mayor Dan Sullivan planned to veto the resolution. Sullivan left the meeting soon after the vote.

Earlier Tuesday, Sullivan and two Democratic state senators were in clear disagreement about a related issue: whether the municipality could legally spend the money on a new facility.

The millions of state dollars were specifically earmarked by the Legislature for "critical and deferred maintenance" on a set of big infrastructure projects constructed in the 1980s, wrote legislative counsel Hilary Martin in a legal opinion. Anchorage Sens. Bill Wielechowski and Berta Gardner, both Democrats, released Martin's memo along with a written statement to reporters Tuesday morning.

"A new building does not seem to be to be deferred and critical maintenance," Martin wrote. "A new building would also not seem to be a Project 80s building. In my opinion, construction of a new facility for tennis courts would not be within the scope of the appropriation."

Using the appropriation to build new courts would put the municipality at risk of a lawsuit, and taxpayers might end up footing the full bill for the facility if a suit against the project was successful, Wielechowski said in a phone interview.

"That's the real problem that the municipality faces, that they can go ahead and try to use this money for tennis courts, but if they do, there's a good chance it's illegal and they're going to have to pay that money back to the state, because it violates the grant," Wielechowski said.

That's not true, Sullivan said. Another legal opinion from a legislative affairs attorney in 2010, released by City Hall midday Tuesday, says that if the appropriation for a project does not "explicitly address an issue," the agency receiving the money can rely on the project summaries as backup material to help understand the Legislature's intent.

The 2010 opinion was written on another issue, but the mayor's office said it was relevant to the rec center construction.

Sullivan pointed to another document that he said boosted his case: an October 2013 letter from the director of the state Division of Community and Regional Affairs, which administers and oversees state grants. In the letter, Scott Ruby wrote that the project summary for the $37 million appropriation is "very clear" that the Legislature's intent was to fund the new indoor, multi-use courts.

The analysis that Wielechowski and Gardner released Tuesday was politically motivated, Sullivan said. The mayor disagreed that the legal questions raised in the memo opened the municipality up to a lawsuit.

Asked if the more-recent legislative legal opinion carried more weight, Sullivan said no.

"Newer means nothing. The point of the matter is that the agency that actually administers these grants is whose legal opinion is probably more viable," Sullivan said. "You can get any legal opinion you want."