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By Dan Rudy 

City capital projects list to go to Legislature


At its end-of-month meeting Jan. 26, The Wrangell City and Borough Assembly approved a list of capital budget requests for the 2017 fiscal year, which begins July 1.

More than 50 projects costing over $140 million are listed and prioritized, with the city looking to the state and federal government to cover part or all of their costs. Economic development director Carol Rushmore and Public Works head Amber Al-Haddad started on the list, taking last year’s and updating its projects. Most of the items from the FY16 capital budget list carried over to this year’s, as the Legislature tried to rein in state spending.

Some of the projects are immense – $50 million for “dam replacement” is the largest single item – and unlikely to materialize any time soon. Most others are more modest in scope, from $55,000 for recarpeting the library to $25,000 for fire hose replacement. Some of these smaller projects are prioritized separately in an under $100,000 listing, with an application resubmission already underway to replace two police vehicles for $70,000 using Rural Development funding.

Topping the list is float construction for Shoemaker Bay Harbor, a $10.7 million project for which the city is seeking a $5,000,000 matching contribution from the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities. Wrangell’s Tier 1 request was highly ranked among the department’s project priorities, coming up second after a proposal by Kodiak.

Under the matching program, proposals need to be fully-funded as submitted to receive any support. Because of Kodiak’s higher priority request, the $5,000,000 allotted to it this year in Gov. Bill Walker’s draft budget falls just short of covering it and Wrangell’s request, meaning Shoemaker could likely be passed over for a less-expensive project.

Borough manager Jeff Jabusch explained the city will do what it can to lobby for additional funding to go to the harbor project program, though it will be a tough sell as the Legislature prioritizes a balanced budget. At the moment even the funds allotted in the governor’s budget are not guaranteed to make it by the time a final draft is approved and signed.

Having Shoemaker as the top priority on Wrangell’s capital to-do list makes the case for its importance, Jabusch said.

“We wanted to make sure to show our number-one priority is that,” Jabusch said.

Similarly, second on the capital requests list is around $460,000 for the first phase of water main distribution system replacement. Wrangell is currently in the process of phasing out its ductile iron lines, which in some sections have prematurely failed. As with Cassiar Street during its renovation last year, the city will replace the iron mains with a more durable polyurethane piping.

Jabusch said there is usually Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation money available for such projects, as the funds available to it are federally-sourced. At last month’s meeting he reported loan paperwork for the DEC was already underway.

Replacing the fire department’s aging pumper truck ranked number three on the capital request list, after Assembly member Stephen Prysunka lobbied for the item to be bumped up from the 18th spot.

“I’d like to see us move it up,” he told Jabusch and fellow members on the council. Where it currently was ranked, he felt the project “doesn’t look like much of a need.”

The estimated cost is $275,000, though Prysunka pointed out a new vehicle may cost more than that. Jabusch explained there are federal grant programs geared toward financing emergency vehicles, which he would look into.

Bumped to fourth as a result were pool facility improvements, a $2,000,000 project which will involve roof replacement, mechanical updates and a full remodel. After that, the $35 million needed to design and construct a new hospital facility for Wrangell Medical Center comes in fifth.

Other priorities are $4.2 million for final improvements to the boatyard, $950,000 for renovations to the public safety building, $300,000 for ozone generator replacement, $1.6 million for phase two of water main distribution replacement, and $2.7 million for added backup diesel generation.

Outside funding for these items may not be available, but Jabusch explained the list highlights the city’s infrastructure needs. The inclusion of projects and their ranking is partly political, adding a little clout to proposals when vying for competitive grants. The list is a work in progress, and Jabusch said the ordering may change as a state budget begins to take shape.

“You keep chipping away at things and looking for grant opportunities,” he said. “We would go after anything we can find on the list. Anything they give us we’ll appreciate.”

In addition to the facilities and improvements they yield, capital projects benefit communities by the construction activity they bring. Contracts inject money into the local economy, as do workers and specialists brought in to complete the jobs. The state’s renovation of Evergreen Avenue planned for later this year is one such example, though Jabusch expressed concern such projects may be in short supply in the foreseeable future.

“It’s not going to be comfortable, but we’ll get through it somehow,” he commented. “I think most communities are in the same boat we are.”

Crucially, one difference that sets Wrangell on a better financial footing than other communities in the state is a lack of debt. Jabusch points to the city’s various reserve funds and its stable revenue base as positive signs it can weather a drought in government spending.

However, several large infrastructural concerns loom ahead. In addition to Wrangell’s water mains and roads, an electrical systems study released last summer has shown its transmission lines and backup generation capabilities are in need of an update.

The costs will be big, costing in the millions. And unlike water, waste and other utilities, Jabusch pointed out that energy projects have a particularly difficult time garnering grant assistance.

“My guess is we’ll have to fund it ourselves at some time,” he said.


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