City acknowledges little chance of state funding for projects

Acknowledging Alaska's shortage of money, the Wrangell Borough Assembly has put together a list of priority projects for state funding "should the fiscal climate change."

Until then, "(the city) understands there is little to no availability of funding for local capital needs," said the backup material for the assembly workshop Jan. 12 to compile state and federal legislative priorities for 2021-2022.

In putting together the list - just in case money becomes available -the assembly considered some much-needed work at the schools, in particular life and health safety improvements.

But given the state's budget deficit, the city administration is considering the compilation of community needs more of a "wish list" than a "to-do" list.

The most expensive capital improvement project listed is rehabilitation of the water reservoir dam system, at $50 million. Rehabilitation or replacement of the Public Safety Building is estimated at $2 million to $10 million. Other capital improvement projects on the list include upgrades to the solid waste transfer station, replacement of the diesel generation power plant, and water main replacements under Ash Street and Zimovia Highway.

After further discussion at the workshop, the assembly agreed that life and health upgrades at the schools should be prioritized as well. High school and middle school fire alarm upgrades are needed, Borough Manager Lisa Von Bargen said.

The fire alarm upgrades have been submitted for funding for several years under the state Education Department capital projects program, "and it never moved up because it didn't score high enough, because there wasn't any work done at the local level to bump it up," she said. "By that I mean there wasn't any engineering or design work done to make it shovel-ready."

Assembly Member Patty Gilbert, who also serves on the school board, suggested the assembly add renovations to the high school elevator, as well. The elevator's hydraulic ram lost its fluid and can no longer operate, Josh Blatchley, school district maintenance director, reported late last summer. The district has been considering options for repairing or replacing the elevator.

"Josh's hope was that we could find a way to reduce the expense of getting that elevator replaced or repaired," Amber Al-Haddad, the city's capital facilities director, said at the assembly workshop. "I think it's going to come down to us having to use the full $210,000 that we have budgeted, or a full replacement. ... It's critical that we return that elevator to operation as soon as possible."

Ryan Howe, teacher and assembly member, said he was glad to see that the school projects getting attention. Von Bargen proposed the assembly amend its draft priority list to combine the projects under life and health safety upgrades for the middle school and high school.

Mayor Steve Prysunka said he liked the idea, and said he wanted these projects moved higher on the priority list if possible.

"We need to make sure those projects are getting on that list," Prysunka said. "You just can't mess around with our kids, and a fire alarm system is just crucial. ... You also need a darn elevator there for kids that are handicapped, or the public, or teachers to move up and down."

Beyond construction and repair projects, Wrangell's other state legislative priorities for the near future include supporting reforms to the Alaska Marine Highway System, calling for sustainable management of the sea otter and shellfish populations, and supporting the adoption of a sustainable budget plan at the state level, including the Permanent Fund dividend.

Federal legislative priorities include calling on Congress to pass an additional COVID-19 relief bill, seeking more funding for dam rehabilitation at the federal level, and advocating continued support for federal payments to communities in lieu of taxes on Forest Service land and for the Secure Rural Schools funding program.


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