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Senate defeats measure to cut funding for Anchorage indoor tennis facility

Nathaniel Herz

An Anchorage state senator is proposing that the state take the money meant for an indoor tennis facility supported by Mayor Dan Sullivan and use it for renovations to the city's Loussac Library instead.

Sen. Lesil McGuire, who is running against Sullivan for the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor, has asked the Senate Finance Committee to reappropriate $4.4 million that the Anchorage Assembly allocated to the tennis facility last December.

The Assembly's decision came at the end of two-and-a-half months of acrimonious debate over whether the state money could be better used to improve city ice arenas -- and whether state legislators had even been aware that there was money for tennis in the capital budget when they voted on it.

"This issue has since drawn a great deal (of) criticism, divided the Anchorage Assembly and served to drive a wedge into our community," McGuire wrote in her request to the Senate Finance Committee. "I believe this change in direction would serve to satisfy an important need, help our community to heal, and serve to restore public confidence in the legislative appropriations process."

The Senate on Monday voted against a separate proposal from Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, that would have amended the state operating budget to strip the $4.4 million from the tennis courts.

"This was our first opportunity to fix an appropriation that should never have been made," Wielechowski said in a prepared statement. "Building new tennis courts when we face a $2 billion deficit and are laying off teachers and cutting essential public services is wholly inappropriate."

The proposal failed, 15 to 5, with McGuire joining Wielechowski and three other Democrats in the minority.

In an interview, McGuire said she had "broad support" for her own proposal, which could be incorporated into either the Senate or House version of the state's capital budget.

But an influential state lawmaker, Sen. Kevin Meyer, R-Anchorage, one of two co-chairs of the Senate's finance committee, said in an interview that he had little interest in dredging up the discussions over the tennis project.

"Why poke a stick at that hornet's nest? Leave it alone. We've got enough problems at the state level, let alone getting involved in local politics," Meyer said. "I know (McGuire) is in a statewide race against the mayor. But regardless, it's a terrible precedent to set, to try to reappropriate money that you've already granted to a village or a city."Meyer also spoke against Wielechowski's proposal on the Senate floor on Monday.

The money for the tennis facility -- which is part of a larger, $37 million grant -- is still in a state account, which will be used to reimburse the city's expenses, according to Debi Kruse, a grant administrator for the state.

"The Legislature can reappropriate any funds that they want to," Kruse said. "They have the authority to do that."

The city has not filed for any reimbursements yet; its first grant report is due on April 30, Kruse said.

McGuire's proposal would take the money for the tennis courts and dedicate it towards improvements at the deteriorating Loussac Library in Midtown, where administrators and advocates are pushing for a $15 million renovation.

The city's request for state funding last year was rejected by legislators; an early version of the state capital budget released Sunday includes $8 million for the library, which is $2 million less than the city had asked for.

A bond proposition that would have put $2.75 million in city money towards the renovations is trailing narrowly after last week's municipal election, with thousands of ballots still to be counted.

Sullivan said in an interview Friday that he would leave defense of the tennis money to the Alaska Tennis Association, which was the organization that initially requested the funding from state legislators last year.

"They should take the lead on working with the Legislature," Sullivan said, adding that if McGuire's proposal went through, "it would be a step backwards for the community."

"I don't know if it's political gamesmanship," he said.

In a follow-up email Monday, Sullivan said the tennis project was going ahead and in the design phase, with the city considering a metal building, or a metal-framed building with a fabric cover..

Allen Clendaniel, the president of the Alaska Tennis Association, said he was "flummoxed" by McGuire's proposal.

"We'll do what we need to do to protect the funds for the tennis facility, which we think is a good project," he said. "I'm hoping it's just a political stunt, and it will die down."

McGuire acknowledged that her candidacy for lieutenant governor against Sullivan "has put his decision-making, his judgment about how he considers the will of community residents in the city of Anchorage into question for me."

But she added that she wanted to reverse the funding for the tennis facility because the package that included the money was under a line item for "deferred and critical maintenance" for city projects built in the 1980s.

"Through a process that I would argue was hijacked, we ended up with a misallocation of money toward the building of new tennis courts," she said. And, she added, referring to Sullivan: "It is an abomination to have someone walking around like a king, who believes that they have the authority to use an appropriation like their personal checkbook."

Sullivan responded that McGuire's statement was "inaccurate and unjustified," given that the state money for the tennis project had come at the request of the Alaska Tennis Association, which received support from local residents, the University of Alaska Anchorage, and the United States Tennis Association.

"This is clearly a community driven project," Sullivan wrote in his email. "Her actions, if successful, would unfairly punish a worthy non-profit that worked extraordinarily hard to secure the funding."

McGuire also cited a memorandum she had requested from a legislative attorney that says the state grant can't be used to pay for a new facility for tennis courts, given the language of the line item.

The text of the memorandum is nearly identical to a separate legal opinion requested by Wielechowski and another Democratic state senator last December, just before the Anchorage Assembly voted to approve the funding for the tennis courts.

At the time, Sullivan released two other documents refuting the senators' legal opinion.

He said in his email that McGuire's memorandum "takes an extremely narrow position on whether the building can be stand alone or not."

The detailed description of the state grant, he said, refers to expansion of the existing recreation complex where the new tennis courts would be built.

"If necessary, the buildings can be attached," he added.

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

 


By NATHANIEL HERZ
nherz@adn.com