Borough staff and elected officials spent a couple hours chatting with the public during an informal open-house in the assembly chambers Tuesday afternoon. The idea was to welcome new municipal residents, gather input, and answer questions about transitioning to a borough government. Matt Lichtenstein was there:The shift from city to borough government will mean changes for several department heads, nearly all of whom were on hand to talk with the public. Finance Director Jody Tow is working on taxation issues, like updating the senior sales tax exemption rolls:
“Right now we have no way of knowing how many are out there because they never expire. So we have had to make the requirement that seniors come back in to the office and fill out the required paperwork, the updated paperwork, and get a new card,” Tow said.
While sales tax and transient room taxes are expected to go into effect borough-wide this spring, people outside the former city limits won’t pay property tax until next year after the borough assessor values the newly-incorporated property.
Borough mapping technician Susan Christiansen is developing the map for that effort:
“Once I get a base a base map, I’ll be able to begin to give parcel ID numbers to all of the subdivision lands out there that are privately owned. And I believe the Assessor plans to start in September, driving around, doing assessments in the outlying areas,” she said.
Those areas, that are not within the former city limits, will need to be included in a new comprehensive plan. That’s the job of the borough Planning and Zoning Commission.
“The comprehensive plan is your major planning document for your community,” said Community Development Director Leo Luczak who will help put together that plan, “There are a lot of various plans that are around and it will merge those together, have a very public process and try to come up with a vision of where you’d like to be in ten, twenty, thirty years. Its very helpful for applying for grants.”
Luczak did not expect the plan to include zoning for outlying areas, “My understanding is that people outside the city limits prefer not to be zoned. So there won’t be zoning out there unless they get together as a group and petition and then the assembly would consider that.”
It will likely take a while before that work gets off the ground, since no one ran for the Planning Commission during the December borough election. The Assembly is calling for letters of interest from anyone who wants to fill one of the seven, empty seats.
One new issue, for Public Works Director Karl Hagerman, is keeping roads clear of snow in areas that are newly within municipal boundaries. For instance, the State plows the main road at Papke’s Landing but Hagerman’s department is looking at the needs on the side roads.
“So we’ve been doing a little bit of work on that, research. We’ve actually cut a little ice out there with a grader in one area that was pretty rough and spread some sand because there’s pretty bad ice in some areas out there….We’re also looking at other quote, unquote public access roads or driveways that might make sense for us to move some snow in order for fire trucks and police and ambulance to be able to get to those homes if needed,” Hagerman said.
As far as emergencies, Police Chief Jim Agner doesn’t expect any difference in response. He says service area one, the former city limits, is still the department’s primary responsibility. However, his officers will also continue to help cover the broader borough area under an existing agreement with the State Troopers:
“And if you’re not iin service area one, you call the Alaska state troopers. Then, quite frankly, what happens is the Alaska State Troopers call us and we have a mutual aid agreement with the troopers and we go out. But that’s how we’ve been doing it for years, so we don’t forsee any immediate changes,” Agner said.
And neither does volunteer fire chief Jerrod Cook, who pointed out that the department already responds out the road or across the water as much as possible. “We always responded out there anyway and we do what we can for the location and the time that we have. So, I don’t see any change as far as our system right now. That would come down the road if there’s areas out there that want to get better coverage than they have now,” he said.
There was a good turnout from the public. Over 40 people stopped by, including many residents from outside the former city limits. Donald Sperl, who lives in the Papke’s area, came to ask some property tax questions. As far as ideads for work the borough government could do out the road, Sperl suggested boat ramp improvements at Papkes and other launch sites would be a popular choice.
Sperl didn’t vote for the borough, but he’s optimistic about the future. “I was against it yes, um, but I’ll be the first to go pay my property taxes. You know you can’t stop governmentand its easier to work with people than against them. So, yeah, I think its all going to wwork out just fine,” he said.
Inclusiveness is key for Kupreanof City Councilor Tom Reinarts who had been an outspoken opponent of the borough.
“You know as this borough does move forward, we need to get organized and act like a borough and encompass everybody and embrace everybody like a borough and make it a real borough, not just a bunch of little groups of people that are throwing rocks at each other or something like that. We’ve got to reach out and have an outreach program that does reach out to all of the areas of the borough,” Reinarts said.
One of the arguments in favor of borough formation was that the broader community would have a stronger regional voice in natural resource and development issues. Some residents are hopeful the Assembly will use that voice to keep the proposed Kake road and electrical intertie from cutting through the roadless city of Kupreanof and possibly running powerlines under nearby Petersburg Creek. The creek is a prized local recreation area on Northeast Kupreanof, just across the water from Petersburg
Mike Stainbrook now makes his home in Petersburg’s the former city limits but still owns property on the creek, where he lived for years. While he supports getting electrical power to Kake, he thinks the project should take a route that doesn’t negatively impact his community.
“What I would like to see is that this new borough take an active role in preserving what we have and preserving it for the future and giving consideration to all the alternatives and making sure that the viewshed to Petersburg and where they played as children and where their children will play is similar to what we have right now,” Stainbrook said.
Some of the many issues the borough assembly will likely have to address are ordinance changes. For instance, under city ordinance, people who lived outside city boundaries had to pay more to use Parks and Recreation Facilities. Parks and Rec Director Donny Hayes expected the borough government will be revisitng that issue.
Hayes said, “There won’t be any changes to pricing as of yet because that can only be changed by ordinance…So, there’s a lot of other ordinances that have to be pushed through to get the borough change to happen…So ours is a little lower on the list but we’ll be looking at that in the next three months or so.”
And now that it’s a borough and no longer a city, at least one new municipal resident is suggesting a name change. George Cole of Keene Channel said he’d like to see the community called Petersborough instead of Petersburg:
“Doing that kind of takes away the baggage that comes along with the idea of a ‘burg because it is no longer a ‘burg, it is now a borough and yet it does acknowledge the history by keeping the name ‘Peters’ from the founder of the former City of Petersburg. It retains that history and also acknowledges the birth of the borough arising out of Petersburg,” Cole said.
Such a change would require a ballot question and a public vote, since the municipality is officially named “Petersburg Borough” in its charter.