A project to pave gravel paths at Soldotna Creek Park and connect the trail system to Homestead Lane is still in limbo, due to a change in how the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities administers grant funding.
Adding asphalt to the gravel trails would make them ADA accessible, and constructing a new, paved path to the sidewalk on Homestead Lane would connect two trails systems.
At Wednesday's Soldotna City Council meeting, City Manager Stephanie Queen said the city got a notification in May that the city's grant application was approved. The city's budget was for right around $550,000, with Soldotna providing a 20 match of about $100,000. Design and prep work for the project has already been completed. But the grant money has not arrived.
"The grant agreement paperwork was supposed to be forthcoming," Queen said. "We've received nothing until last week with a letter I got from the DOT saying that the budget is not $550,000, it's $1.5 million, so our 20 percent match is now $300,000. And this, despite numerous attempts for us to get a handle on what's happening, what the progress is. These projects were supposed to be built last year. "
The grant money is through the Alaska Transportation Alternative Program. In the past, Alaska DOT would be a pass-through agency, directing federal funding for the program on to the local municipalities, which would administer the project. Queen said that now, DOT plans to manage the project and will charge a heck of a lot more to do so.
"A really simple trail project has things like setting up a field office. Just to give you an example, we budgeted $26,000 for design, their number is closer to $250,000 and an additional $75,000 for their own staff to then review that design." Queen said.
Queen said the city is fully capable of administering the project and is requesting that they be allowed to do so, but will likely need to take that request to legislators or the commissioner's office, as it isn't just Soldotna that's affected. Queen said the city of Kenai is in the same boat and Palmer walked away from awarded grant money over the same issue.
Councilman Clark Whitney said he's concerned other DOT grant-funded projects the city is planning.
"My own personal feeling is it sounds like DOT is starting to use these grants and projects as a revenue source, figuring that they can make some money and say, 'Hey, look at what we're doing,' he said. "And the communities like us are going to suffer from that."
Queen did not recommend the council accept DOT's budget. If the city is allowed to administer the project, or if the city chooses to pay for the project with all its own money, Queen said it could be completed this summer.
Also at Wednesday's meeting, the council approved an ordinance that lowers the required number of members on the Planning and Zoning Commission from seven to five. This allows a quorum to be established with as little as three members present, as the commission has struggled to find enough people wanting to be members.
And the council failed to pass an ordinance that would add protections for whistleblowers to city code. Councilman Jordan Chilson submitted the ordinance. City policy addresses how to handle whistleblower complaints but Chislon said he wants a higher level of protection.
"And since they are adopted via an administrative policy, rather than ordinance, they are subject to change or even repeal at the discretion of our city manager at any time… I think as a council, it's important that we have a seat at the table in ensuring effective projections for our city," Chilson said.
The ordinance was wide-ranging to address areas of concern Chilson saw, including adding a required reporting process so complaints came to the city, first, before being shared in the public, establishing a maximum amount of damages that could be awarded and extending protection to someone reporting a violation of the city's conflict of interest policy.
The measure failed five to one, with Chilson being the only yes vote, though no other councilmembers shared their thoughts on why they did not support the measure.
The Soldotna City Council's next meeting is March 11.