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Tiny Nikiski makes ambitious bid to become Alaska’s biggest city

  • Author: Alex DeMarban
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published December 30, 2016

Amid frustrations with road maintenance and other services provided by the Kenai Peninsula Borough, residents in the tiny town of Nikiski want it to become Alaska's largest city, by many leaps and even more bounds.

More than 300 petitioners from the unincorporated town, an industrial base for the oil and gas industry in Cook Inlet, are asking the state for the chance to vote on whether Nikiski can become a home-rule city stretching 5,480 square miles — bigger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined, which together have 96 incorporated towns and cities.

Nikiski's proposed city boundaries, announced by the state on Thursday, would stretch from the Alaska Range in the west to Anchorage in the east, with much of northern Cook Inlet slicing in between.

If the Local Boundary Commission approves the petition, residents in the area could decide the issue at the polls, perhaps late next year. Nikiski would still be part of the Kenai Borough but it would have its own taxation authority and service responsibilities in an area that includes valuable oil and gas properties in Cook Inlet and two unincorporated communities across the water — Tyonek and Beluga.

Organizers say the change would give more local control to about 6,000 residents in the area, with Nikiski providing the road maintenance, fire response, and senior and recreational services more efficiently than the borough does. The city could also provide additional services if residents chose.

"Nikiski as a community is at that stage where it's time for us to build our community ourselves and determine where we go in the future," said Stacy Oliva, a Nikiski resident and co-vice chair of Citizens for Nikiski, the group fighting for city status.

But the sheer size of the proposal is raising doubts about whether it can succeed, even as organizations on Friday were still learning its details.

An official with Chugach Electric Association, owner of the Beluga Power plant that contributes energy to the utility's power grid in Southcentral Alaska, said it's too early to comment. The plant is located in the community of Beluga on the west side of Cook Inlet — population 19.

Arthur Standifer, president of the Native Village of Tyonek, where about 200 people live, also would not offer an opinion on the subject.

"We have to have our community meetings and see what the community comes up with," Standifer said.

If approved by voters, the new city would dwarf the biggest city in Alaska. At 295 square miles, the city of St. Paul on St. Paul Island consists mostly of the surrounding Bering Sea, state officials said.

The longest-serving commissioner on the five-member Local Boundary Commission, Bob Harcharek of Utqiagvik, formerly Barrow, said on Friday he had not yet received notice of the petition. He said he could only speak publicly in general terms about the request until he receives that notice.

"My whole concern is, do they have the human and financial resources to manage a city of that size?" said Harcharek, hearing details about the concept from a reporter. "And it would depend on what services they would offer outside that core area where Nikiski exists."

Nikiski residents said they're requesting such a large area because it follows the boundaries of service areas that Nikiski residents have voted for previously so they could pay for and receive the fire, senior and recreational services administered by the borough.

The petition says Nikiski's needs have been "largely ignored" by the borough, itself the size of West Virginia at 25,000 square miles. The petition says the borough gives priority to other communities. Of particular concern is the borough-wide service area for road maintenance.

The petition says the borough each year collects about $1.7 million more from Nikiski than the town receives back in road services. That money would be available for an incorporated Nikiski to spend on improved services and a Nikiski city council and staff, or other benefits such as reduced taxes, officials said.

"Concomitantly, Nikiski residents are frustrated with potholes, deteriorating roads, poorly crowned streets that drain ineffectively and snow removal that occurs sometimes weeks after snowfall," the petition says.

The organizers don't plan to create new taxes, so residents would pay what they currently pay but receive better service, said Oliva. She said 336 people signed the petition.

"The way the proposed charter is written is that any increase in taxes has to go to a vote of people," she said.

Commission staff have deemed the petition "complete," meeting technical requirements including having at least 278 signatures from people in the proposed area, 15 percent of those voting in the general election in 2014, said Eileen Collins, a local government specialist for the commission.

The scope of the town's proposal is so large that the city would touch more municipalities with abutting boundaries than is normally the case, requiring extra work from petitioners who must communicate with those municipalities, Collins said. That includes sharing the petition and related documents with the Lake and Peninsula Borough in Southwest Alaska and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough in Southcentral.

In part because of that extra work, commission staff have allowed about three extra weeks for a public comment period that will end March 8.

Rep. Mike Chenault, the former speaker of the House, said from his home in Nikiski on Friday that he supports the effort by his neighbors to vote on the matter.

"It's a pretty big area but I'd never want to thwart the opportunities for communities to better themselves," he said.

Chenault, a strong supporter of the oil and gas industry in Alaska, said he isn't concerned that an incorporated Nikiski would slap higher property taxes on industry or anyone.

"I don't see it necessarily as a power grab or wanting to increase government spending," said Chenault, adding that he'll decide later how he should vote on the proposal, if the board approves the petition and he gets that chance. "They're more concerned at times about services provided to our community, or not provided."

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said at the last assembly meeting, held Dec. 6, that he and staff are reviewing the proposal, according to Kelly Cooper, president of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly. The assembly has not yet had a chance to weigh in, she said.

"You know how important Nikiski is to the borough and this is a large land mass, but we haven't had an opportunity to review it to give you a good opinion," Cooper said on Friday.

Assembly member Dale Bagley said an incorporated Nikiski would not hurt the borough. The borough would still collect the same level of property and sales taxes, for example.

"My only thoughts on it are that it doesn't have the look and feel of a city, which I think the boundary commission will probably be concerned with," he said. "This is more like a borough within a borough."

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