Soldotna to tackle annexation in the new year

Soldotna City Council has reached the end of the annexation process laid out by city administration more than two years ago and plan to make a decision on the heated topic at the start of the new year.

With the final presentation of the city’s public engagement report from the Athena Group at a work session on Wednesday night, the administration and city council must make a decision whether to move forward with expanding the city’s borders to surrounding areas.

“We identified two main things that needed to happen in order to make an informed decision,” said interim City Manager Stephanie Queen. “The two parts were the fiscal impact study, to take a close look at what our expenses would be… The second part was the public engagement piece.”

The fiscal impact study, performed by Anchorage-based consulting group Northern Economics, was completed in June of 2016 and detailed the financial impact of annexation within the nine proposed areas.

The public engagement study was completed this month by the Athena Group, a consulting agency based in Olympia, Washington, and collected data from about 100 participants, or about two percent of Soldotna’s residents. Athena Group had hoped to reach 30 percent of Soldotna residents, or about 1,500 people.

“I don’t want to dwell on the low participation rates because we do see the information that we received as useful,” said Meagan Picard of the Athena Group. “We also see the low participation rate as part of the story, as part of the process … If people don’t care, they won’t show up.”

Of the responses, though, Picard found overwhelming opposition to annexation.

“We heard significant opposition to annexation from people who are passionate about the issue due to additional regulatory and sales tax earnings, also due to perceived limited value to them in annexation,” Picard said. “A group of opponents that we heard form, while relatively small, also appears to have a powerful influence on the community’s sentiment at large.”

Through the study, Picard and her team concluded that if the city decides to pursue annexation in any form, it could propagate distrust, even among those who have previously been neutral.

To combat this distrust, the report suggested that the city council either annex only those areas that garner support for annexation, create a process prior to formal annexation to allow for a “vote” on the issue or to put annexation on the back burner for now.

“Each of these options — or some combination of them — could demonstrate to the community that the city heard and is committed to being responsive to their concerns, building trust and enabling development of effective and acceptable solutions to growth and other community challenges in the future,” the report states.

The city council made no decisions during the work session, but did agree that annexation would be on the agenda as soon as possible so that the council can hear the city administration’s recommendations and choose to table the issue or move forward by deciding what the next step in the annexation process would be.

“I have said in the past, and I still believe this, that we should not be annexing neighborhoods where people don’t want to be in the city,” said vice mayor Linda Murphy. “Why would we want to bring you in if you didn’t want to be here? … and I’m certainly not interested in annexing areas where it’s not economic for us to do so … I’d like to have some recommendations from the administration on where we should go from here and I really want to, at least, make a decision soon about those areas that we’re not at all interested in so people can get on with their lives and not be worried that we’re going to try to take them into the city.”

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