The group pushing to incorporate Nikiski into a home-rule city met with Mayor Charlie Pierce’s office on Thursday to discuss and finalize their petition’s administrative transitional plan.
The meeting involved Citizens for Nikiski Incorporation board members, Borough Assembly president Wayne Ogle, the mayor and the mayor’s chief of staff, James Baisden. During the meeting, the participants discussed how the incorporation would affect the Hospital Service area, the process of collecting taxes for the borough and distributing them to the city and the planning powers of other cities in the borough.
Citizens for Nikiski Incorporation Co-Vice Chair Paul Huber said that the meeting was “brief but productive” and has helped his group in its goal to resubmit a petition for incorporation.
Alaska statutes and administrative codes require that any petition for incorporation include a detailed administrative plan that outlines how the transition of public services would be handled during and after incorporation.
Under the plan developed by the Citizens for Nikiski Incorporation, hospital and emergency services would be handled in a similar fashion to other cities in the borough, Chairman of the Citizens for Nikiski Incorporation Dan Gregory said during a meeting held on Jan. 24. Other aspects of incorporation, such as the fate of the Road Service Area and the handling of tax collection and distribution, were up for discussion at the meeting with the mayor’s office Thursday.
The Citizens for Nikiski Incorporation submitted a petition in July 2016 to incorporate Nikiski and neighboring areas into a home-rule city. The original plan totaled 5,480 square miles and extended across the Cook Inlet to include Tyonek, Beluga, and portions of the Lake Clark National Park and Preserve. This would would have made the city of Nikiski slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, which is 5,543 square miles.
The Tyonek Native Corporation and the Kenai Peninsula Borough pushed back on the petition in statements submitted during the petition’s public comment period, which ran from January to September of 2017. There were 30 total public comments received before and after the release of the preliminary report in May 2017, with 28 in support of incorporation, one opposed, and one neutral on the matter. The preliminary report by the LBC staff — which reviews petitions before they are sent to the commissioners themselves — recommended the original 2016 petition be denied by LBC commissioners, which prompted the Citizens for Nikiski Incorporation to ask for the opportunity to amend it before recieving a final decision from the LBC.
The Tyonek Native Corporation submitted a letter on March 8, 2017 supporting the decision in the preliminary report to reject the petition. The corporation argued that the Village of Tyonek is distinct both geographically and culturally from the community of Nikiski, and therefore should not be included in its incorporation. The Kenai Peninsula Borough similarly agreed with the Local Boundary Commission and argued that the proposed city of Nikiski did not accurately calculate the cost of retaining the salaries and benefits of all employees in the three service areas.
The letter from the borough submitted in March 2017 states that because the employees are currently included in the larger pool of borough employees for the purposes of payroll, accounting, legal, and insurance, they are partially supported by the borough’s general fund and general governmental departments.
“Negotiating health and welfare benefits in a smaller risk pool and administering those benefits will cost much more for a smaller entity to provide,” stated the letter submitted on behalf of the borough and signed by Mike Navarre, the borough mayor at the time.
After being granted a postponement of the decision-making process, The Citizens of Nikiski Incorporation went back to the drawing board and submitted a draft of their amended petition in October 2018 to the Local Boundary Commission. Changes to the petition included a reduced boundary size of 2,334 square miles that still includes portions of the Cook Inlet and Lake Clark National Park and Preserve but no longer incorporates the Native Village of Tyonek.
The reduced boundary size proposed in its October 2018 revised petition, is now, in terms of population density, more in line with other cities incorporated in Alaska since 1990. With a population of 5,771 people, the city of Nikiski would have 2.47 people per square mile, compared with Edna Bay at 1.89 or Adak at 2.48. Nikiski also has a significantly larger population than the other cities incorporated since 1990, and would be the only one considered “urban” as defined by the U.S. Census Bureau with a population more than 2,500.
The Local Boundary Commission staff gave the amended petition an informal technical review in October 2018 and found that the petition still needed a more detailed administrative transition plan, which was addressed in Thursday’s meeting between the mayor’s office and the citizen group.
Huber said the mayor and his staff “have demonstrated good faith cooperation,” and helped the group obtain the facts and figures regarding financial data that will ensure their transitional plan is in agreement with the borough’s.
The incorporation efforts have gone on for several years now, and according to Huber and other members of the group, support from the community has grown since they began and the momentum is still on their side. For example, the proposed LNG pipeline project, while not originally a factor when the group first submitted their petition, has since become a key point of discussion. According to members of the group, many residents of Nikiski have expressed their support for incorporation because they want more autonomy in deciding the fate of their community and determining the impact the proposed pipeline would have.
They are also hoping for more support under Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s new administration.
“We’re hopeful that we will encounter a more optimistic attitude in the handling of our petition,” said Huber.
Huber and Co-Vice Chair Stacy Oliva both stress the importance of transparency with “not only the petition signatories, but the entire Nikiski community,” and encourage public input on the amended petition as they prepare to submit it once more to the Local Boundary Commission.
The Citizens for Nikiski Incorporation meet every Thursday at the Nikiski Fire Station 2 at 6 p.m., and while seating is limited, the public is invited to attend.
• By BRIAN MAZUREK, Peninsula Clarion