‘We’ve haven’t been paying our way’: Borough Mayor Urges Infrastructure-work Bond Issue

Feb 13, 2018

Fairbanks North Star Borough Mayor Karl Kassel is again asking the public to help him figure out how to deal with the long backlog of deferred maintenance on borough facilities that are estimated to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. The mayor demonstrated the challenge he’s facing by asking residents to consider which of the top 10 facilities most in need of maintenance should the borough pay to fix – and which should be shut down and demolished.


Kassel told about 120 people who showed up for first of two Monday meetings at the Pioneer Park Exhibit Hall that borough officials are facing some hard decisions on how to catch up on long-deferred facility maintenance when the source of funding for those projects is itself struggling to pay its bills.

Borough Mayor Karl Kassel talks about the backlog of infrastructure maintenance during the first of two presentations in one of the buildings that's on the "Top Ten" list of facilities most in need to maintenance: the Pioneer Park Exhibit Hall.
Credit Tim Ellis/KUAC

“We’ve had a business model that has worked for 40-some years,” he said. “The State of Alaska has helped us out periodically when we needed buildings built or major repair work on buildings, the State of Alaska was fairly flush and they sent us money every year.”

But the mayor says the crash in oil prices four years ago that’s dried-up state revenues and funding for municipalities has broken that business model.

“We’ve haven’t really been paying our way,” he said.

Kassel says the borough can’t pay for the needed work through its operating budget. He says that’s why he’s drafting a long-term plan to catch up on the maintenance. And it’s why he’s proposing to ask voters this fall to approve issuing bonds to pay for the work.

“Priority 1 in my budget this year is to stop digging the hole that we’ve been digging by not paying – we’ve been deferring maintenance on our buildings,” Kassel said.

To illustrate the scale of the problem, he presented a list of his top 10 facilities in the borough that are most in need of maintenance – and that are likely to be among the most expensive to fix.

“We looked at the six-year work plan for what we need to accomplish at these facilities,” he said. “That totals 283 million dollars’ worth of work.”

The estimated pricetag to replace the 10 facilities and maintain them over 50 years is even steeper.

“If we replaced them and we did all the maintenance required,” he said, “we’re looking at 438 million dollars.”

'All these facilities contribute to quality of life in our community.'
- Karl Kassel,
borough mayor

The 10 facilities include some of the Fairbanks area’s most popular and beloved attractions, beginning with the 85-year-old Riverboat Nenana. The list includes three other Pioneer Park facilities – the Centennial Center and the Gold Dome and Pioneer Hall Museums, all built more than 50 years ago. Also, the borough animal shelter, Big Dipper Ice Arena, Carlson Center, borough administration center, and all three area swimming pools.

“All these facilities contribute to quality of life in our community,” Kassel said. “They all mean something, they all have value, or we wouldn’t be doing them.”

The mayor says demolishing any of the facilities would diminish the quality of life and create other problems, such as fewer services and lost jobs. Many at Monday’s early meeting favored repairing most of the facilities. A majority also said they favor closing the Hamme and Mary Siah pools and opening an aquatic center to take their place. Audience member Shari George says those are the types of investment in the community that she thinks borough residents should support.

“I don’t have a problem with that,” George said. “I come from a place where taxes were relatively high. I mean, here the taxes are like nothing.”

Mike Prax says he’d favors hiking user fees for people who want to use such facilities as swimming pools, instead of taxing property owners. He says borough officials should make the fiscal impact of bond issues clear when they’re asking residents to consider voting for those ballot measures.

“Those questions should be phrased, when we’re making a collective decision like this, ‘How much do you want to force your neighbor to pay?’ ” Prax said.

Mikki Bateman says she believes borough officials ought to explore other ways to raise revenue, like sales taxes that kick in during tourist season. She says she didn’t get enough information to feel comfortable with supporting repairs for some facilities and demolition for others. But she says if the borough is so short on money, maybe none of the projects are affordable.

“Meetings like this will help people come to the realization that the money is gone,” Bateman said. “The money is gone, and we have to make different decisions. And, y’know, people aren’t ready to hear that.”

Borough officials say they’re ready to hear more input from the public, especially in the coming weeks, while Kassel and his staff are working on drawing up next fiscal year’s budget.