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Econ 919 — Big projects on deck after bond ballot sweep

A rendering of the planned field house in Soldotna.
Courtesy of the City of Soldotna
A rendering of the planned field house in Soldotna.

Results from this week's municipal elections aren’t official — yet.

But voters are close to approving three separate bond packages to fund infrastructure improvements across several schools and build a new firehouse and recreation center in Soldotna.

The projects have been years in the making. Two even failed on previous ballots.

So, now that they look poised to pass — the question is, what’s next?

“Well, that’s a great question, said Soldotna City Manager Stephanie Queen Wednesday. “In fact, I got my first text at 7 a.m. today that said, ‘What are the next steps?”

So far, voters in her city are giving the thumbs up, two-to-one — (468 “yes” votes to 225 “no’s”) — on a bond that will finance a field house next to the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex, with an indoor track, turf field and court. Soldotna says it can take out its bond without creating any additional taxes for residents.

New emergency station

Bonds aren’t the only way to finance big municipal projects like this one. But Central Emergency Services Chief Roy Browning said they are efficient.

“The benefit of the bond — it allows you to go out, borrow the money and get the project moving pretty quickly, I would say, in government terms, anyway,” he said. "So that the people that are paying will get the service right away.”

Central Emergency Services is getting a new station in Soldotna, thanks to a $16.5 million bond that is polling well with area voters — 2,039 to 1,051 votes, so far.

That bond will cost taxpayers $36 extra in property taxes for every $100,000 in property value.

Browning’s department — which serves most of the central Kenai Peninsula beyond Kenai and Nikiski — has long wanted to replace its aging Soldotna station with a new facility. The current Station 1 was built in 1957, in the town’s early days. CES said it doesn’t have enough space to meet the large number of calls it receives today.

Browning said it’s not the first time the department has taken out a bond to build a new station. Voters are close to paying off a 20-year bond for the construction of a fire station in Kasilof.

Browning _ poux
Sabine Poux
“The benefit of the bond — it allows you to go out, borrow the money and get the project moving pretty quickly," said CES Chief Roy Browning.

One of the first things CES will have to do next is figure out zoning for the new station site, since it’s within Soldotna city limits, located not far from the current station. The borough assembly approved the purchase of that land earlier this year.

CES will hire a contractor to design the project. Browning said the fire department will create a working group to talk about some of the things it would like to see in the building. (There are some basic functions that must be included, but some of the details are flexible.) They hope to break ground on the new Station 1 by summer 2023.

From his desk at the borough’s Office of Emergency Management, with a view through the window to the current Station 1, Browning said he’s excited to centralize more of the department’s functions under one roof. The new station will include offices for CES administration among expanded living quarters and a bigger garage.

“When I first came back here, my second time, I felt like we were an octopus with about 27 tentacles, because we were going in so many different directions,” he said. “So I’m hoping that this will be the central location and help us function and be able to meet our mission in a better, organized fashion.”

School improvements

It might be construction central on the Kenai for a while. That’s because voters are also poised to greenlight a bond package to tackle 10 deferred maintenance projects at Kenai Peninsula Borough School District schools — 4,250 votes to 3,192.

Clayton Holland is superintendent of the district. He said the next step is to issue the bond early next year. Then, it’s time to get to work.

“There will be some that will probably start right away, in the spring and summer,” Holland said.

The projects all have different timelines.

John Hedges with the Kenai Peninsula Borough said the borough can tackle more minor projects in the winter. Bad weather is less of an issue when renovating the inside of Soldotna Prep, for example.

KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland.
Sabine Poux
KPBSD Superintendent Clayton Holland.

But full-on replacement projects — like the high-priority, $21.5 millionoverhaul of Soldotna Elementary — require the more forgiving climate of an Alaska summer. And the borough will have to hire several subcontractors to get them all done.

Hedges said the borough has four years to get to work.

“Projects will be let out to bid throughout that entire period,” he said. “We’re not going to dump them all on the street at once.”

Funding for a new building for Kachemak Selo is not in the package – the borough said it’s secured that money elsewhere. Previous bond packages including funding for that project have been shot down.

Holland said he’s grateful voters recognized the need for the improvements this election. The district’s infrastructure upgrades will cost voters an additional $45 per $100,000 of property taxes.

"I think when we see these bonds, we’re seeing that movement — people seeing the need,” he said. “The need to support educators, and our facilities that go with that.”

Soldotna field house

Queen said that the relatively high voter turnout in Soldotna’s election shows enthusiasm for the project.

“It looks like we’re consistent with those high voter turnout years where there was something exciting on the ballot,” she said.

She said city staff will spend the next sixth months lining out the financing for the field house — which includes working with the Alaska Bond Bank on structuring debt and making decisions about repayment periods. Then, they’ll focus on other parts of the funding strategy — applying for grants and looking for state or federal funds to make a match.

Meanwhile, she said work on the field house design is nearly complete.

“It’s 95 percent there,” she said. “Mostly, we’re going to be talking about the finances and pulling those pieces together so we can hopefully start construction when next summer rolls around.”

But before then, more ballots still need to be counted. City and borough election results will be certified next week.

KDLL Reporter Riley Board contributed reporting.

Sabine Poux is a producer and reporter for the Brave Little State podcast of Vermont Public. She was formerly news director and evening news host at KDLL in Kenai.

Originally from New York, Sabine has lived and reported in Argentina and Vermont and Kenai.