This map shows the proposed boundaries for the City of Nikiski, as the petitioners submitted them to the state Local Boundary Commission. The boundaries would follow the same lines as the current Nikiski Fire and Emergency Service Area. (Courtesy the Local Boundary Commission)

This map shows the proposed boundaries for the City of Nikiski, as the petitioners submitted them to the state Local Boundary Commission. The boundaries would follow the same lines as the current Nikiski Fire and Emergency Service Area. (Courtesy the Local Boundary Commission)

Challenges remain in making patchwork into a city

Nikiski residents are rolling onward in their bid to become a city.

A group of citizens has successfully filed a petition with the Local Boundary Commission, a state board regulating municipal boundaries, to incorporate Nikiski into a home-rule city. The state verified the petition Dec. 30, 2016 and is currently holding a public comment period before staff prepares an evaluation of the petition’s merits.

As submitted, the city of Nikiski would include approximately 5,480 square miles of land, an area slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut. It would follow the boundaries of the current Nikiski Fire and Emergency Service Area, which encompasses the greater Nikiski area and stretches across Cook Inlet to include a number of oil rigs and the Alaska Native villages of Tyonek and Beluga.

The challenges are clear, though. During an informational meeting held Tuesday in Nikiski, Local Boundary Commission staff answered questions on issues all over the board, from overlapping service areas to the weight of public comment in the process. If Nikiski successfully incorporates, it will be one of the larger cities in Alaska — between Nikiski, Salamatof, Tyonek and Beluga, approximately 5,900 people would live in the city, according to 2016 populations.

Once this public comment period closes on March 8, the Local Boundary Commission staff will review the comments and the petition for a preliminary report on whether it meets the criteria for incorporation, said Eileen Collins Rease, a local government specialist with the LBC, at the meeting.

“We analyze the petition and see if it meets the standards,” she said. “There’s a whole slew of standards that are found in our code. They look at different aspects of … local boundary changes. So we look at whether it meets those standards.”

One of the biggest questions is the inclusion Tyonek, Beluga and the swath of Cook Inlet containing the rigs. During its deliberations, one of the criteria the Local Boundary Commission will consider is whether the city’s proposed boundaries include large areas of wilderness and are on a scale “suitable for city government,” Rease said. The Local Boundary Commission has the ability to change the boundaries of the city during its deliberations, but the voters also have to accept the incorporation effort in a majority vote, she said.

The authors of the petition, who have organized into a group called Citizens for Nikiski Inc., chose to draw the lines around the current service area for several reasons. One is so that the property taxes from the oil rigs are included in the city’s revenue to support continuing fire and emergency services on the platforms after the responsibility is transferred from the borough to the city. The other is so that Tyonek and Beluga, which are currently included in the fire and emergency service area as well as the Nikiski Senior Service Area and the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area, won’t be cut out of services.

If the city is formed, the government will take over providing services from the borough, which means the current service areas will be dissolved. The city government will have to set up a taxation system to provide services like roads, fire and emergency services, recreation services and senior services, if it chooses to do so, Rease said. Nikiski’s services and governmental structure have been established in patchwork since 1967, when the fire and emergency service area was formed. Unifying all the systems into one government will take a coordinated plan with the borough, said State Assessor Marty McGee at the meeting.

“I’m trying to encourage the dialogue to happen now,” he said. “You’re not required (to develop a plan), but typically it’s really hard for the boundary commission to form a decision … if some of these questions are not answered.”

He emphasized the need for a transition plan. Stacy Oliva, a member of the incorporation group who is listed as one of two lead petitioners, said the group has been working with the borough on such a plan and included a draft version in the petition.

Part of the struggle for Nikiski is being “in the unknown,” Oliva said. Four of the cities in the borough — Kenai, Kachemak City, Seldovia and Seward — existed before the borough formed in 1963. Homer incorporated shortly after in 1964 and Soldotna incorporated in 1967. No new city has successfully formed since then, though Nikiski has been trying since 1984, when an incorporation attempt failed dramatically during the public vote. Another effort in 2001 was dissolved before reaching the petition stage. Now that the current attempt is rolling down the road, the organizers don’t have a model transition plan from the other cities to work with because it’s been a long time and conditions have changed.

“Some of the other more newly formed cities (in the state) don’t necessarily have the same situation,” Oliva said. “… Each city and each area of the state is kind of unique in itself. Each community has its own personality and its own set of limitations and its own assets, what it’s going to offer to the state. It’s a very individual basis as to how to go through it.”

Rease encouraged people to submit written comments to the Local Boundary Commission ahead of the March 8 deadline, though there will be another opportunity to comment after the preliminary report comes out in May.

“We really do read them,” she said. “We receive them by email, fax, mail.”

McGee drew a parallel between Nikiski’s bid to incorporate and a recent attempt by the Big Lake area to become a city. Big Lake, located in the northern Matanuska-Susitna Valley, went through the Local Boundary Commission process in 2014 and 2015 only to fail by a wide margin during the public vote — nearly 80 percent of the voters were against it.

Many of the reasons Big Lake wanted to incorporate were similar to Nikiski, McGee said — residents were concerned about a lack of representation in the Mat-Su Borough Assembly and how their taxes were being spent on road maintenance. However, rumors that taxes would increase sharply spread quickly, even though that was expressly forbidden in the proposed city’s charter, McGee said. He warned the attendees that the same could happen in Nikiski.

People can still review and comment on the petition. Copies of it are available at the Nikiski Post Office, the Treehouse Restaurant, the Studio in Nikiski, the Nikiski Library, the Native Village of Tyonek Tribal Office, on the Local Boundary Commission’s website or on the Citizens for Nikiski Inc.’s website, nikiskiinc.org.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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