PALMER -- The Matanuska-Susitna Borough will spend $2.5 million on emergency repairs to an eroding barge dock at the borough's struggling port across Knik Arm from Anchorage.
The Mat-Su assembly in a 5-1 vote Tuesday night approved the emergency spending by authorizing a $2.5 million loan from the borough's land management fund. Port officials have already set aside $250,000 from their budget for the work.
The loan was approved with no prior public notice as an amendment to another controversial borough project: a request to spend $870,000 on repairs to the rain-damaged ferry M/V Susitna that need to be completed before the never-used craft can be sold to the Philippine Red Cross. It's hoped the borough's insurance company will repay those costs.
The barge dock problem emerged as discussion on the ferry repairs opened during the Tuesday evening meeting. Port and borough officials told the assembly it's crucial to repair a 3 1/2-foot gap in a piece of steel that's letting seawater undermine the "Open Cell Sheet Pile" dock before winter ice batters the opening and triggers even more expensive work.
Dan Mayfield, the Big Lake assembly member who sponsored the emergency funding amendment, said the fast-tracked funding request was triggered by the need to accomplish the repairs quickly.
The failure of the steel where two cells join is allowing seawater to invade behind the dock wall, Mayfield said. The resulting erosion gouged gravel from the dock and now threatens other structures, including a conveyor system. The port moved a crane last week to make sure it didn't topple.
"It is an emergency and it's something that has to be addressed right away," Mayfield said.
Several Valley residents attending the meeting to track other issues chastised the assembly for the high-dollar dock repair funding approval with no advance public notice.
Despite voting in favor of the emergency funding, several assembly members also expressed concerns about the way the loan came before them as an amendment to the ferry funding ordinance.
Port officials have known about the extent of the damage for six weeks, noted Barbara Doty, who represents an area from Hatcher Pass to Wasilla.
"And suddenly it's an emergency being tagged onto another fairly critical issue?" Doty said. "That doesn't serve the public well."
Borough Manager John Moosey said using the standard funding process, which requires public notice, would have taken at least 12 days.
"Our problem is it's too big of a risk to wait," Moosey said in an interview Wednesday.
The Mat-Su dock is the same unusual design -- Open Cell Sheet Pile construction -- as one used in an expansion project at the Port of Anchorage that's cost at least $300 million and triggered a lawsuit.
But the repairs needed at Port MacKenzie are totally different from the problems that plagued the Anchorage project, Mat-Su Port Director Marc Van Dongen said in an email Wednesday.
Van Dongen said workers in May noticed a 4-inch split in a "wye" -- a piece of vertical steel where two cells join -- that extended from the seabed up about 12 feet. It probably started at the bottom of the wye, driven about 15 feet into the sea floor.
Crews tried to fix the crack with thick steel sheets and removed gravel from inside the cells to relieve pressure in hopes of buying enough time to submit an insurance claim for permanent repairs, Van Dongen said.
But the crack progressed through the summer, growing by mid-October from 4 inches to 3 1/2 feet on a cell on the north side of the damaged wye.
"I have been in charge of major construction projects for over 45 years and have never seen a piece of steel split on a component like this," Van Dongen wrote in the email. He said possible explanations could be earthquake, a vessel strike or some kind of damage inflicted when the wye was originally driven 16 years ago.
"I'm not sure we will ever know what caused the problem," he said.
He said he hopes to finish the repairs by the end of January, unless ice conditions delay work.
Van Dongen said the loan will be repaid with interest, and hopes insurance will reimburse the cost. The port director said he negotiated a cost-plus contract for the repairs with Orion Marine Contractors of Tacoma, Washington.
The barge dock handled 32 vessels in the summer of 2015 -- the most since 1999 when the dock was built -- but only nine were barges. The remaining 23 were offshore vessels associated with an export project involving 16 miles of concrete-coated pipe for a Nikiski natural gas pipeline.
The land fund the dock money comes from holds $6.5 million, money earned through a portion of borough land sale, lease or right-of-way revenues.
Borough officials say the unusual funding mechanism stems from drained reserve funds after a difficult series of budget years.
The borough "skinnied up" most of its reserves and contingency funds over the past few years to find money for services while keeping property taxes down, Moosey said.
"In the past we've had a much larger emergency fund available. The port had more funding available," the manager said Tuesday night. "We've essentially rolled the dice in the last few years that we would not have an emergency. When the budget got so skinny, this is where we are."