Former Kenai city manager Rick Koch was killed in a motorcycle accident on the Dalton Highway on Sunday.
According to Alaska State Troopers, Koch, 60, had been riding with several friends when his motorcycle went off the road around Mile 39 of the Dalton Highway. Koch’s group drove him to Livengood, where a resident with a phone contacted emergency responders. People on the scene attempted CPR, and Guardian Flight responded from Fairbanks. Flight medics pronounced Koch deceased upon arrival. Troopers say he was not wearing a helmet at the time of the crash.
Koch was Kenai’s city manager from February 2006 until Dec. 31, 2016. Kenai Finance Director Terry Eubank is one of the many city employees that Koch hired and who worked under him for several years.
“Rick was really, really good at working with Juneau, with politicians down there to secure infrastructure funds for city roads, water and sewer projects, the turf field at the Kenai (Central) High School,” Eubank said. “He did a lot of things I don’t think a lot of people really saw, but without Rick’s connections and know-how, the city wouldn’t have prospered the way it has. He brought in tens of millions of grant funds to the city of Kenai.”
Eubank said Koch used his fundraising acumen for other groups as well. Koch was a leader of the Kenai youth hockey booster group Kenai Pensinsula Hockey Association when Eubank — who later became the group’s president — got involved with it.
“Rick came in and brought the steak feed fundraiser to the club, which is probably the biggest fundraiser the club does every January,” Eubank said. “Over the last ten to twelve years, that thing raises $10,000 – $15,000 a year. It’s kind of been the backbone of the club’s fundraising.”
Since 2007, Koch had also been an organizer of the annual Kenai Central and Soldotna High School alumni hockey game.
Koch grew up in Anchorage, where his father was stationed at Elmendorf Air Force Base in the late 1960s. Prior to becoming Kenai’s city manager, he had managed construction and engineering projects for the the North Slope Borough, the Alaska Department of Transportation and the Alaska State Housing Authority, and owned a business of his own, Koch Construction.
When the Kenai City Council hired Koch in 2006 to replace outgoing Kenai city manager Linda Snow, they gave him a list of six city priority projects. Eubank, present City Manager Paul Ostrander, and Mayor Brian Gabriel all cited two of these accomplished tasks — bringing Kenai’s water system into compliance with then-new arsenic standards of the Environmental Protection Agency and improving the finances of the Kenai Municipal Airport, which was then sustaining itself on money drawn from the city’s general fund — as among Koch’s most significant accomplishments for the city. In 2007, Kenai was drilling new water wells in an attempt to find a water source with the lower arsenic levels the EPA would begin requiring in 2009. Though the new water wells produced colored water, deemed unacceptable, the city solved the problem by building a roughly $3.6 million water treatment plant.
As for the airport, Eubank said Koch helped improve its finances by altering its investment fund, changing its spending strategy and adjusting fees and lease rates according to studies of their market value, leading to lease rates on airport land that have sometimes been unpopular.
“When you enter politics and people have to pay more, it doesn’t make people happy, so you’re trying to find the best way to implement that so you don’t drive business away, yet you raise enough money to operate,” Eubank said. “So I think it was a good balancing act that he did, and we got our rates up to what we feel are comparable to other airports of similar size and operations.”
Koch resigned from the city manager’s position in 2016 to run as a Republican for the Alaska House of Representatives, though in August he was defeated in the primary by Rep. Gary Knopp. Koch later sought appointment to Knopp’s previous seat on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly without success. Eubank said Koch may have had future political plans, but for the present he “really seemed to be kind of taking it easy for a little bit — bought a motorcycle this spring, and was just kind of living a bit and having some fun — and it was way too short.”
Though Koch may have been taking it easy, he remained active in public life with what turned out to be his last city position on Kenai’s Harbor Commission, where he continued being involved with a city project he hadn’t yet seen to fruition: the bluff erosion mitigation project. Harbor Commission Chair Christine Hutchinson said his engineering background and previous work on the bluff erosion project would have been valuable.
“I think Rick Koch brought a bit of expanded expertise with construction and contacts around the state with regard to the resources,” Hutchison said. “I thought it was going to be a great benefit to the Harbor Commission. It’s going to be a loss for us.”
Koch’s professional relationships sometimes merged into personal ones. Gabriel served as a Kenai council member for six years during Koch’s term as city manager and described him as “a friend more than anything.”
“I could call him and get an opinion on political issues, but we also talked about other things — Stanley Cup playoffs and baseball, and all sorts of non-political things,” Gabriel said. “He was a really good friend of mine.”
Reach Ben Boettger at firstname.lastname@example.org.