The Soldotna city council approved the results from last week’s special election. By a final margin of just 18 votes, residents chose not to issue $10 million in bonds to build a new fieldhouse adjacent to the sports center.
Most on the council were disappointed in the result, and Mayor Nels Anderson was no exception.
“I have heard all sorts of oddball reasons why people did not vote for this...but the bottom line is if this were a resounding defeat, I would leave it. But I personally think this is important enough we need to bring it back. And we could bring it back this fall or we could bring it back, if folks felt it appropriate we wait a year, a year from now. And we need to get all of those stakeholders who were here supporting it to actually do some ground work and get some people out to vote.”
At the polls last Tuesday, 557 people turned out and by a margin of just 21, the no votes took the day. The canvass board counted another 151 absentee and question ballots this week and though there were more yes votes than no in that batch, it wasn’t enough to change the poll results. City Clerk Shellie Saner said this was a relatively high turnout, even compared to general elections.
“Actually, this was a pretty good turnout for us. This was a 19.08 percent voter turnout. (The) 2018 regular election had a 13 percent voter turnout.”
City Manager Stephanie Queen says this just gives the city an opportunity to refine its pitch, as it’s had to do with other major projects over the years that took time to complete. She says capital projects, whether financed locally or through ever-fewer state dollars, have always been subject to the political winds of the day.
“I think these big types of transformative projects in Soldotna have always been somewhat subject to the influence of local politics. So when I think back to projects that the city and residents fought for for a long time, like the memorial park or Soldotna Creek Park, they were similar in that they took decades. And at different points in time, I think folks would recognize that they were political in terms of the level of passion that residents brought to them. So in that way, even though state funding has effectively gone away and we’re going to be funding more of these projects entirely ourselves, I don’t know that I would say it’s more of a political concern moving forward. I think the only real change is going to be the conversations around the funding mechanisms themselves.”
In this case, it meant a bump in local sales tax of a half a percent to finance $10 million. Mayor Anderson says if adjustments have to be made in the amount that’s bonded or even how residents might be entitled to use the facility, he’d be in favor.
“If we wanted to add some caveats in that, say, the seniors could walk on the track for nothing if they live in the city of Soldotna, or some other things to sweeten it, I’m willing to do whatever it takes. We made need to change the amount we want to go bond or go figure out some alternatives, but I would like to see this come back, personally, as soon as possible and for us to do a positive campaign.”
More than a year ago, the city set aside $3 million as seed money to try and find partners and sponsors for the project. That didn’t turn up much, which is why the bond initiative was put out, but that seed money is still around. Linda Hutchings, who was a proponent of the plan from the beginning, says she’d like to see that money put to use.
“I would love to see us get our groundwork done, get our concrete slab done and have it ready so that when...people see that something is being done, it’s not something that’s on a piece of paper, they are more apt to follow through and be happy with it...because this isn’t something that just affects Soldotna. It affects the whole peninsula and there were so many people that wanted this to pass, but they couldn’t vote on it. So sometimes I think we have to step up for the greater good. This is a quality of life issue.”
A ballot question can be put before voters again after six months, which means this one could possibly be up for another vote in the fall. The city council also has other options for raising revenue that don’t demand a public vote. The council indicated there may be more work sessions about the fieldhouse and those other options in the coming months.