The Petersburg borough has denied an application to vote on a proposed 10-million dollar renovation of the municipal building and police station.

Petersburg’s assembly had given the green light to the project and it was scheduled to be advertised for construction bids this week. However, a group of local residents this week applied to gather signatures and wanted to put the project before voters in a special election. Supporters of the referendum said a project of that size should get voter approval before going forward. The application requested a ballot measure that presented the annual operation and maintenance costs of the renovated building.
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Borough clerk Debbie Thompson Wednesday ruled that the referendum application was not sufficient based an opinion from Jim Brennan, the borough’s attorney. Brennan wrote that the petition would violate restrictions on a referendum that are spelled out in the Alaska Constitution and Petersburg borough code.

“In short the referendum would seek to have the voters effectively veto specific appropriations, for a specific capital project, made by the borough assembly,” Brennan wrote. He argued that Alaska courts have found the allocation of resources, or appropriation of money between competing uses, is the exclusive power of the borough, and the borough assembly in this case. Brennan cited a 2012 lawsuit filed against the Kenai Peninsula Borough that sought to uphold an initiative that required voter approval for any capital projects costing more than one million dollars.

Here’s what borough code says on the matter: “A referendum shall not be applied to dedications of revenue, to appropriations, to local or special legislation or to laws necessary for the immediate preservation of the public peace, health or safety.”

Don Koenigs, one of the supporters of the vote said he had not yet seen the clerk’s decision Wednesday afternoon and was waiting to read it before deciding the next step. The applicants can protest the clerk’s decision, which would then send the matter to the assembly for a decision.

Petersburg’s assembly Tuesday unanimously gave the first of three approvals for transferring money for the renovation project. At the beginning of the meeting, the borough Parks and Recreation director Donnie Hayes made a personal appeal for moving forward on the project. “Last year right about this time, my uncle was arrested for drugs in this community,” Hayes said. “And a few hours after he was arrested I received a phone call from chief (Kelly) Swihart and the message in which I received was that my uncle was telling the police officers that if he didn’t return the drugs immediately to his drug dealer, that something would happen to my family.”

Hayes called it a scary time for his family and praised the police department for its work in keeping them safe. He thought that not having a safe police building would make it difficult to keep good police officers in town. “Our police department is incredibly important to this community and to me and I’m disappointed that we haven’t done something to make sure that these police officer’s lives are taken care of, as they take care of me.”

The municipal building and police station was built in 1958 and it was also the home of the library and fire department until the local government built a new library and fire hall in the in the past four years. Portions of the cement floor are settling and causing problems in the aging building.

The borough plans to move administrative staff out of the facility for a year, while part of the building is renovated as a new police station and new borough offices. The police department would remain in place during that time. The borough has more than half of the 10 million dollars in state grant money, and will be funding the rest with reserves, money set aside for property development, the sale of land and borrowing from the electrical department.

With the referendum application denied, the borough is planning to start advertising for construction bids next week.