Assembly candidates discuss Soldotna annexation

Two Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly candidates — incumbent Brett Hibbert and challenger Dan Castimore, both running to represent District 1, the Kalifornsky Beach area — gave their thoughts on issues posed by members of Borough Residents Against Annexation, a group opposing the city of Soldotna’s effort to expand its boundaries.

The Kalifornsky Beach area that either Hibbert or Castimore will represent includes three of the nine areas that Soldotna is considering adding to its territory — those designated as study areas 4, 5, and 6. According to a May 2016 Soldotna-commissioned economic study of the annexation areas, Study Area 4 — a business-dense strip along Kalifornsky Beach Road between Bonita Avenue and Gas Well Road — would, if annexed, bring the city about $899,100 annually in sales and property taxes, the most of the nine areas by a margin of about $340,000. Study Area 5 — stretching north and west of the K-Beach commercial area — would bring the fourth most revenue, with $162,000 annually, and Study Area 6 — the Knight Drive area — would be fifth, with $152,100 annually. However, the lucrative central Kalifornsky area would also require the largest expenditures — $633,700 annually — on public safety, street maintenance, and other city services, putting it third in the report’s revenue-expenditure ranking of possible annexation areas. Ranked by this ratio, the north K-Beach study area is fourth and the Knight Drive area is eighth of the nine studied areas.

Borough Residents Against Annexation formed about two years ago in oppose the annexation effort, said president Brian Olson. The group invited Hibbert and Castimore to speak on Tuesday at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association headquarters on Kalifornsky Beach Road.

Hibbert said he wasn’t sure what the assembly would be able to do about the issue. If the effort goes forward, the Soldotna City Council will submit a petition for the annexation to Alaska’s Local Boundary Commission, a state board that will approve or deny it.

“I don’t know at the borough level what exactly the borough can do about this,” Hibbert said. “The boundary commission is the one that can make the recommendations of what can be done. You’re going to have to petition the city council. Hopefully bring it up as a vote of the residents of these areas.”

Hibbert’s business, the Alaska Cab taxi company, is among those in Study Area 4, the proposed annexation area on central K-Beach Road. Hibbert said being annexed would lower his taxes between $900 and $1,000 per year. According to Soldotna’s website, annexed areas would see a 0.9 mill drop in their tax rates — the difference between the 1.40 mill borough road maintenance tax they’d no longer have to pay, and the .5 mill city tax they would take on.

Hibbert expected that city services would also improve the quality of water at his business.

Castimore, the information technology manager for the city of Kenai, lives west of the proposed annexation area near Poppy Lane. He said he has “no strong feelings” about the annexation issue, but believes the K-Beach area should have greater local organization for advocating its own priorities, such as road maintenance and spoke against the area’s annexation on those grounds. He said the annexation plan focuses on commercial property for its greater potential for tax revenue, to the exclusion of residential property, making “the future potential for any kind of services to be offered to those of us who live on the other side of the road basically non-existent.”

“The area of K-Beach may want to incorporate down the road, it may want to do its own thing,” Castimore said. “If you take all the commercial property from us, we’re stuck forever.”

Study Area 4, according to Soldotna’s economic report, has by far the most commercial property of the proposed annexation areas, with 120.5 commercial acres — west Funny River is second with 38.4 commercial acres — making its non-vacant land about 50 percent commercial and 33 percent residential.

Soldotna resident Daniel Lynch, who sad he is ineligible to vote in the District 1 race, moderated the discussion. Lynch said the assembly could have influence over the annexation issue in the future, and that he believes “most people involved in this would expect their representative to bring forth a resolution.”

“If the assembly was to introduce legislation or a resolution against annexation, that would carry a lot of weight with the boundary commission if it gets to that step,” Lynch said.

He pointed out previous instances of the borough weighing in on local boundary matters. In March 2017, Borough Mayor Mike Navarre signed a brief to the local boundary commission opposing Nikiski’s attempt to incorporate as a home-rule city, another question that would need approval from the local boundary commission. Members of the borough assembly have also tried to influence the issue, as Lynch suggest, by resolution. In early August, Nikiski’s assembly representative Wayne Ogle sponsored a resolution supporting the Nikiski incorporation, which he moved to indefinitely table after failing to get support from other assembly members.

Hibbert said he doesn’t “know if it’s in the borough’s powers to write a resolution against or for” local boundary questions. He had voted to table Ogle’s resolution, he said, because the Local Boundary Commission hadn’t yet decided on the matter.

“With this, maybe after the city’s figured out which of the nine (possible annexation areas) or how many of the nine, that the city wants to annex, possibly then the borough can be involved in that,” Hibbert said. “But I’m not sure what the powers of the borough are.”

Asked if he would support hypothetical action regarding annexation, Castimore said he wouldn’t “want to commit to an ordinance I haven’t seen.”

District o1 assembly candidate Kate Veh was also at Tuesday’s discussion, although she’d announced earlier in the day that she was dropping out for fear of splitting the vote with Castimore, whom she said she agrees with on important issues. Veh left the discussion after reiterating her withdrawal during her opening remarks.

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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