The Seward Phoenix Log - News of the Eastern Kenai Peninsula since 1966

By Wolfgang Kurtz
LOG Editor 

Flood board proposes to tax and spend


Wolfgang Kurtz | The Seward Phoenix LOG

A full house at the Seward Bear Creek Flood Service Area board meeting.

After almost 11 years of existence, the Seward Bear Creek Flood Service Area board is preparing to move from reaction to action with a slate of projects funded largely by a recent State of Alaska $1 million grant. The board has also recommended to the Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor's office that the tax rate in the service area be raised to allow progress on projects in the future. Currently the advisory body faces year-on-year deficits from annual expenses without even considering the funding of projects under its mandate.

The SBCFSA was created in 2003 by borough voters to undertake planning and oversee projects designed to reducing the risk of flood damage in the Seward area. The board, although not a response agency, has also played a role in coordination and mitigation during flooding. Local board and borough employee Dan Mahalak wears two hats in that respect. His main role is as the board's resource manager in the service area. However, Mahalak can also be tapped to work on borough projects elsewhere.

The other SBCFSA employee is service area coordinator Stephanie Presley. The two staff members make nearly as much in salary as the SBCFSA takes in from its portion of borough tax revenues. That's part of the argument underlying boosting the property tax rate. SBCFSA board members are advocating the hike to get out in front of increasing salary and overhead costs and create a balance for projects planning and funding. They argue that the board can't count on funds from grants, especially without the resources to fund research and planning ahead of justifying such requests.

Since its creation the SBCFSA has subsisted on a half a mill portion from borough tax which is currently set at 8.12 mills inside Seward city limits and 9.65 in the rest of the area. A property and house assessed at $150,000 after any exemptions would generate a yearly $1,218 bill in Seward of which $75 would go to the SBCFSA. In this example, with it's proposed rate hike from half a mill to one mill, the SBCFSA would pocket another $75 and that tax bill would total $1,293.

With current staff costs at $191,000 annually, projected incoming funding of $214,974 doesn't leave much room for other expenses. Because the SBCFSA has built up gradually to the current level of expenses, it does have savings in its fund of $273,181. However, additional expenses of $70,069 will absorb all projected revenue and eat away around $43,000 of the fund balance. With a tax increase, the situation is reversed and forecast revenues of $429,948 would add $169,227 toward the fund in the first year forecast.

A significant number of foreseeable BCFSA projects qualify for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Section 205 program. However, the program requires matching funds from the service area up front in the planning process as well as for construction if the project is approved. Typically these USACE 205 studies require spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. With the additional revenue the BCFSA hopes to be able to sponsor more such projects without counting on the random aspect of borough or state appropriations.

One project that the BCFSA is eyeing that may fall under the USACE 205 $7 million cap is the Jap Creek levee inside Seward city limits. FEMA is gearing up to classify the area for flood risk by evaluating weakness in the existing levee. Although the structure is engineered and constructed to certain standards, it is not federally classified and certified.

According to Malahak, since it currently has no relevant outside authority to rely on, FEMA staff will estimate where breaches may occur and then elevate flood risks accordingly. Flood insurance rates may skyrocket for homeowners in Forest Acres Subdivision who are downstream of wherever predicted failure points fall. In another worst case, if KPB schools are at risk according to the study, they will be cut off from federal funding. Mahalak says that it would be better to be in front of that process with a USACE study in progress, than behind it as is presently the case.

The Lowell Creek diversion tunnel, which the City of Seward is taking the lead on, is in a class of its own among local flood mitigation project. The federal certification for the present system is due to expire next year which could subject the community to a subsequent similar reclassification of flood zones. Mahalak estimated a $100-$150 million price tag for the eventual fix. The city is on the brink of spending at least $1 million as part of its match in a USACE coordinated study.

However, back in the borough, the SBCFSA is ready to pull the trigger on its current slate of five priorities aimed at spending the $1 million in state grant monies on hand. As one former board member commented, you have to spend money to get more money and future appropriation of $3.5 million in state money for Box Canyon flood mitigation may be invigorated through progress on current grant projects. That seemed to be sentiment at Monday's work session when board members were weighing the final ranking of the projects as well as trying to determine what to do with around $66,000 in residual funds tentatively penciled in for Annual Embankment Maintenance.

The discussion centered around the futility of pushing gravel around in a two flood cycle and proceeded to consideration of cleaning out area bridges where water flows higher every year. Board members seems to reach consensus on spending the $66,000 on digging out under the bridges. The next task for staff is to research where to put the gravel.


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