Like that ubiquitous cartoon of the grizzled old year shuffling away as the fresh-faced infant of the new year arrives, Kenai city manager Rick Koch will follow 2016 out of the office he’s held for ten years, while 2017 will see the entrance of his replacement Paul Ostrander, the present chief of staff for Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre.
In 2005 Koch — who had then been public works director for the city of Palmer for six years — saw a flyer near a Xerox machine in a Palmer municipal office, advertising an open city manager’s position in Kenai. He applied, he said, on a whim.
Since Kenai hired Koch in February 2006 to replace outgoing city manager Linda Snow, he’s spent his time on city problems ranging from finance to sewage, from Kenai’s steadily growing dipnet fishery to its steadily disappearing bluff.
Koch grew up in Anchorage, where his father was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in the late 1960s. He remembers taking trips to the Kenai Peninsula with his father to hunt, fish, and dig clams — fond memories that he said contributed to the impulsive application for the office he’s held for the past decade.
“Kenai has a really nice combination of attributes,” Koch said. “It’s an old community. In old communities like Kenai, like Palmer, like some others in Alaska — when you go back three or four generations, those are the people who still live here, and they expect that their families will be here three or four generations in the future. They make decisions differently. I like the way those decisions are made. It’s not ‘let’s address the issue now and it’ll be someone else’s problem in ten years.’ So I like that about the culture.”
Before going to work at Palmer, Koch had managed construction and engineering projects for various private and public entities, including the North Slope Borough, the Alaska Department of Transportation, and the Alaska State Housing Authority. For about 4 years in the late 1990s, he owned a business of his own, Koch Construction. Managing his own construction firm seemed to Koch like the natural culmination of his career, but other considerations kept him in public work.
“Frankly, being a city manager wasn’t on my career path,” he said. “I was going to keep managing construction projects — that’s what I wanted to do,” Koch said. “Unfortunately I had a marriage that came to an end, and I had my own construction company at that time, and it caused me to make a difference in my own life about how far and long I could be away from home — I needed to be there more often. So I went to work for the city of Palmer, and when this opportunity came up it was really on a lark that I put in an application.”
Though he believes the Kenai council originally hired him for his project management experience, Koch said he’s also “turned into a bit of a political junky over the years.” He spent time chasing funding in the Alaska Legislature while working for Palmer and the North Slope Borough, and in Kenai has had frequent talks with state- and federal-level administrators and elected officials about city interests in capital funding, the dipnet fishery, and other issues. This fall, Koch made his own attempt to step from administrative politics to electoral politics when he entered the Alaska House of Representatives race for District 30, from which incumbent Rep. Kurt Olson stepped down this year.
Koch’s campaign ended in August when Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Gary Knopp defeated him in the Republican primary. Knopp went on to win the election. Koch had resigned from the Kenai city manager’s position before the primary, effective Dec. 31.
Koch has since thrown in his name as one of eight applicants to fill the Kenai Peninsula Borough seat being vacated by Knopp. Borough assembly members will appoint one of them to take Knopp’s place when they meet on Jan. 3. Even if he isn’t appointed, Koch said he wants to remain politically active.
“I still want to be involved at that level, even if it’s just being aware of what’s going on and having conversations with our elected officials,” Koch said. “This is going to be a pretty critical time for us over the next three to five years.”
In or out of office, Koch also said he plans to stay in Kenai.
“When I moved here, this was going to be my last move,” Koch said. “I’ve had the opportunity to live and work all over Alaska, more than most people … I spent time in Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, Haines. I’ve lived in Barrow. I’ve lived in the Mat-Su. I’ve had projects in over a hundred Alaska communities. So I’ve seen a lot of it, and where I wanted to be in my golden years, or my aging years, was on the Kenai Peninsula.”
When the Kenai City Council hired him, Koch said they gave him a list of about a half-dozen priority tasks for the city. As he leaves, he said, one item still hasn’t been crossed off that original list: stabilizing old town Kenai’s eroding bluffs, which — with the Army Corps of Engineers’ estimated 3 feet of erosion per year — have fallen back 30 feet since Koch started the job.
Earlier this month Koch met with officials from the Corps of Engineers — who have been collaborating with the city of Kenai to design, fund, permit, and build an erosion-stopping barrier of large rocks at the bluff’s base — and said the Army Corps’ current tentative plan would allow construction to begin in 2019. In his final months as Kenai city manager, Koch has arranged to negotiate purchase of land Kenai will need for the project (mostly former bluff-top properties that now sit on the bottom of the Kenai River) and succeeded in getting Alaska Governor Bill Walker to administratively renew a $1.45 million state grant for the project that was set to expire this year.
Though Koch has speculated about continuing to work on the bluff erosion project as a consultant for Kenai, future leadership will fall to Ostrander.
Ostrander said Koch had invited him to some of the meetings with the Army Corps of Engineers, although Ostrander won’t officially take on the job of city manager until Jan. 9 (for eight days after Koch’s resignation becomes effective on Dec. 31, Kenai Finance Director Terry Eubank will be an interim manager).
“The bluff erosion issue is clearly one that needs focus,” Ostrander said.
Ostrander said he’s coming into the job without “any preconceived plans as far as changes that need to be made in the city,” and that he’d spend the first days in his new position talking with city employees, residents, and council members before formulating any specific goals. Nonetheless, there are other general issues aside from bluff erosion that will likely take up some of his time.
One of them is how to set fair values on city land leased or sold to commercial or individual interests — a question that has arisen in 2016 as city lessees have sought to buy municipal land on which they’ve built businesses. Ostrander previously worked for three years as a Kenai Peninsula Borough land manager. He said that though the borough has a significant number of land leases, it doesn’t lease out any commercial space, as Kenai does to several downtown businesses like the Main Street Tap & Grill, the Paisley Boutique, and the former Alaska Lanes Bowling Alley. Nonetheless, he said the pricing mechanism is similar — regular appraisals of the land’s value (done yearly for the borough and every five years for Kenai), with rent payments set at a percentage of the appraisal.
Anticipated fiscal problems are another issue Ostrander will likely face.
“This is going to be a challenging couple of years,” Ostrander said. “The state has entered a recession, and the fiscal situation at the state level is going to put a lot of pressure on local municipalities. We’re going to have to be very smart and efficient going forward. And I’m looking forward to that challenge. It’s going to be exciting.”
The Kenai City Council’s last formal event of 2016 was a Dec. 13 work session at which Koch presented factors that could greatly reduce a hypothetical future Kenai budget. Ostrander thought the worst-case scenario Koch presented, in which $559,334 in state-level budget cuts to municipal revenue sharing and the Public Employee Retirement System contribute to punching a $974,540 deficit in Kenai’s fiscal 2018 budget, is unlikely to occur.
“I’ve already been in contact with several of our state legislators and I think they recognize that, while the state’s in a tenuous fiscal spot, the municipalities have already given enough at this point, and shedding more of those responsibilities on the municipalities is not the best solution for the state,” Ostrander said.