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Officials detail state of the city

Daily News Staff Writer

Last Wednesday, City of Ketchikan Mayor Bob Sivertsen gave an update on the state of the city at Cape Fox Lodge as part of an annual Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce event.

Various city department heads spoke, and the conversation focused on state budget impacts, public works projects and port and harbors development.

Regarding the governor's proposed budget, Sivertsen said the City of Ketchikan "is in a better position than most. Our biggest (potential) cut will come in the form of the fish tax at $414,000."

The fish tax brought in roughly $800,000 in 2018, and was split evenly between the city and Ketchikan Gateway Borough. The fish tax change is part of budget legislation proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

Senate Bill 57 could redirect as much as $420 million from municipalities to the state, according to fiscal notes accompanying the legislation. However, the bill has little backing. Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, said in early March that she was unaware of any member of the legislature who supported it.

According to documents from Sen. Bert Stedman's (R-Sitka) office, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough is facing bigger impacts — about a $8.7 million cut for fiscal year 2020. Most of this is due to a proposed reduction in state funding for education.

Sivertsen said that a town hall is planned with Stedman and Rep. Dan Ortiz, I-Ketchikan and will focus on state budget impacts on the city and borough. It is set for 6 p.m.  March 28 at the Ted Ferry Civic Center.

Sivertsen touched on the low lake levels around Ketchikan, and thanked the community for making efforts to turn off lights and keep the thermostat down.

"We want to keep some water in those lakes so that if we have a failure of any kind within our operations, we have a backup while we get those things fixed," he said.

Sivertsen also gave time during the meeting for city department heads to share about their projects for the upcoming year.

Mark Hilson, manager of the Public Works Department said there's more than $4.8 million in capital improvement projects for 2019 and into 2020. The major projects are renovations to the Tongass Historic Museum, police department improvements and upgrades to Creek Street, which include widening walkways. The Ketchikan Lakes road will also be redone.

He says the department's routine responsibilities include maintaining 35 miles of city streets, 50-plus sets of boardwalks and stairs, 23 city owned buildings and 200 vehicles plus other equipment.

He said, as far as the state goes, the Department of Transportation has about $250 million in construction projects either on going or slated for the next five years.

Ed Cushing, the telecommunications manager for Ketchikan Public Utilities spoke next. He spoke on the importance of competition in bringing prices down. He said that in almost in all the other cities in the United States there's a monopoly on the cable market, but in Ketchikan residents have a choice.

The local telecommunication utility has more than 50 employees, and is working on a subsea fiber optic cable to Prince Rupert, British Columbia. Permitting is set to take place in 2019 and construction in 2020. Early estimates for Ketchikan's cost of the project is around $5.3 million, according to city budget documents. The city is actively negotiating with potential partners about shared ownership and costs.

The first cruise ship is expected April 27, and about 1.2 million passengers are expected in Ketchikan this summer, according Port and Harbors Department Director Steve Corporon.  He mentioned an Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation meeting at the Southeast Alaska Discovery Center on April 5 to review beach monitoring results around Ketchikan and cruise ship permitting relating to discharges.

Corporon also addressed some misinformation that he's seen on social media. Regarding allegations that the sale of water to cruise ships during the summer has contributed to low lake levels and, in turn, the diesel surcharge, Corporon said that the amount of sold out of Ketchikan lakes, 38.6 million gallons, would only generate about 24 megawatts of electricity — less than the amount required to power Ketchikan for an hour during a cold-weather week.

"It's just a spit in the bucket, pun intended, for the power consumption around here." he said.

Corporon said the partial government shutdown did affect the permitting process for the blasting of a rock pinnacle in the Tongass Narrows. However, he remains optimistic that the permits will still be secured by the initial May 1 timeline. If the permitting process is complete by then, bidding for the project would occur this summer, with the blasting performed this winter, according to Corporon. Permitting, design and execution of the project is estimated around $8.5 million according to city budget documents.

There was a question from the audience echoing the urgency that local business owners feel about port expansion and how business owners could get involved with the process.

Corporon said the city started looking into port expansion in 2014.

"We lost a year on just getting the contract awarded to do it," he said. "And now we've lost another year, with questions on the cost of it. And whether or not this was the right road to go down."

Sivertsen said expansion is a huge decision for the community and very expensive.

The project amount reflected in the 2019 budget proposal, back in December, was around $63.6 million.

"The last bid came in north of $80 million, a lot more than we thought it was going to be," said Sivertsen.

He said the city is in discussions with the cruise ship industry and they are moving forward with how to deal with building the infrastructure to support an increase of passengers and how to pay for it.

Sivertsen said, "By no means does the city want to drag our feet on this and get behind the curve."