Von Bargen chosen as new borough manager, OKs sand for water filters

The Wrangell Borough Assembly chose its new city manager on Tuesday, bringing to an end a search to replace recently retired manager Jeff Jabusch.

Lisa Von Bargen, currently the community and economic development director for Valdez, was chosen for the position after meeting with residents and city staff last week. She has served in that capacity since 2001, and before that had served five years with the Valdez Convention and Visitors Bureau as its director and tourism manager.

Continuing its conversation from the previous week (see Water story on Page 12), the Assembly approved a revised response plan to manage any future water shortages. Main differences was the response staging, which broke levels of urgency down into three levels. Fine thresholds were also established, with violations of a Stage II restriction earning a $250 fine, and Stage III a $500.

On enforcement, Assembly member Stephen Prysunka commented that it will be a group effort. "I think that's going to take the community and community workers. It's going to take everybody."

"I think we've got to start somewhere and this is a good start," Mayor David Jack said of the plan.

"I think there's going to be some tweaking. It's going to be a living document as we work on some things," Prysunka agreed.

The weightier question was how to proceed with the water treatment plant. The test on dredging the sand hadn't worked as hoped, Public Works director Amber Al-Haddad reported. Assembly members spent considerable time mulling over other options – some available, others hypothetical – but at length a decision had to be made.

"We're spending all this time talking about cleaning this old, nasty sand that we should have replaced 10 or 15 years ago," interjected Assembly member Julie Decker.

There were a number of unknowns to be considered in acquiring new sand, including to what extent it would improve production. Al-Haddad explained one of the first steps that would be needed in either case would be installation of an automatic self-cleaning roughing filter to reduce sediment making its way into the slow sand filtration units. In its assessment of the facility, CRW Engineering recommended the units over another alternative, cartridge filters.

"While there are some additional complexities with the self-cleaning filters, they think that's the way forward we should go," she said.

Given the potential costs of replacing the sand – upward of a million dollars – Assembly members did not take the decision lightly. Another question was the long-term problem of financing a new water plant, a three- to five-year scenario at best, and whether a cheaper method of getting by could be done in the meantime.

"If I knew that replacing that sand was going to eliminate the problem, I'd do that in a heartbeat," said Mark Mitchell.

"It did work at some level in the first place," said Stephen Prysunka. "Even if we have any kind of improvement that prevents us from having to throttle water from our (fish processing) plants this summer, that's a good thing."

At the end, Prysunka recommended they move forward with purchasing the sand required to fill at least one bay, and the recommended roughing filters. Assembly member Patty Gilbert moved to amend the motion to allow for funds to be drawn from unrestricted funds and the restricted reserve funds, which was unanimously approved.

The cost of both items has yet to be worked out, with an initial estimate of the roughing filter placed at around $180,000.

Sitting in her first meeting as interim borough manager, Carol Rushmore advised against the decision, saying it could potentially jeopardize acquiring a favorable loan for a replacement plant.

"What we're trying to do before we make a huge investment is to try to figure out what to do affordably in the short term," she cautioned.

Other Assembly members felt there were more immediate concerns, such as water for residents and fish production.

"My biggest concern is the clock is ticking for another season," said Decker. "To me that's a reasonable investment. I know it can be sizable."

The vote was a 5-2 decision, with Mitchell and David Powell dissenting.

Al-Haddad will work on a quote with the engineers and silica distributor, and get approval for a sole-source procurement to minimize acquisition times. A plan to remove and install the new would follow.

"We're going to plug ahead," she said. "It could be two to three months, best case scenario."

Also part of the discussion was Wrangell's water rates. Finance director Lee Burgess put together a cost analysis breaking down what different consumption levels cost consumers per gallon, compared to the cost to produce them. The break-even point for residential consumption, for instance, which is unmetered and charges a flat $40.75 monthly rate, is at around 9,863 gallons of water. Less than that, and the city makes some amount of profit. Beyond that, and the city begins to lose money.

Commercial rates are metered, with the cost per user increasing incrementally beyond the $26.76 monthly rate past the 5,000 gallon mark. Again, the city's break-even point is at around 9,737 gallons, with any higher usage rates creating a loss to produce. Metered large commercial is even more skewed, with the $401.67 monthly rate start to climb beyond a 500,000-gallon threshold. Well before that point the city's break-even is at 119,565 gallons.

Decker found the information surprising, and said it demonstrated that Wrangell's usage rates would need to be reconsidered.

"I think people need to realize that rates have got to go up. It's just a question of how much," she said. "All customers across the board are not paying enough to cover what it costs to produce water." But that item would be left for later discussions.

In other business, in her first report as interim city manager, Carol Rushmore had some good news about the state budget. Senate Bill 23, currently the preferred budget this session, preserved the $5 million in the Department of Transportation's harbor facilities fund needed to renovate Shoemaker Bay Harbor. At a teleconferenced hearing early Tuesday, Rushmore and harbormaster Greg Meissner testified in favor of maintaining the funding, which would go to the top-queued Shoemaker project. She explained the state match will help leverage $6.2 million of local funds to fund the harbor's replacement.

Assembly members passed on second reading a quartet of ordinances instituting an excise on cultivated cannabis, and updating municipal code to deal with marijuana within the borough. A public hearing portion was held before the meeting, though members of the public did not attend.

The Assembly had little more to say on the topic either, having discussed options pretty thoroughly at its March 28 meeting. The excise affixes an extra $10 per ounce of cannabis raised in licensed operations in the borough. The ordinances also limited business hours for marijuana-related businesses to be prohibited between the hours of 6 p.m. and 8 a.m., Monday through Sunday.

In between the public hearing segment and the meeting proper, Southeast Alaska Power Agency chief executive Trey Acteson updated the Assembly on the organization's doings. The joint-action hydroelectricity agency currently powers the communities of Wrangell, Ketchikan and Petersburg. Several sizable projects undertaken over the past year included raising the dam at the Swan Lake plant, installation of around 100 aluminum helicopter pads for maintenance along interconnecting transmission lines, and installation of a pair of new generators in Wrangell.

Looking ahead, Acteson explained SEAPA would be working with the Army Corps of Engineers to mitigate silting issues at Tyee Harbor. In the event cost-sharing on the part of the Corps is unavailable, he said another option may just be to move the whole dock beyond the river, which would eliminate the need to dredge periodically.

SEAPA will also be conducting review for addition of an additional turbine at Tyee Lake. The current dam structure has a slot available for a third turbine, which would increase by half the facility's peak output capabilities. It would also provide for a spare turbine, in the event of one of the other two failing.

"We'll look at a lot of the different attributes there. There are a few political asterisks there as well," said Acteson. With the review will come the opportunity to assess the price of a new turbine, which could be considerable.

The agency is also looking into the feasibility of further diversification, with opportunities for geothermal power at Bell Island, wind generation at South Mitkof, and some sites that may prove fruitful for tidal generation. Air source heat pumps, biomass, batteries, solar power and even electric vehicle penetration are also under consideration in the future.


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