News-Miner opinion: It’s been 18 years since Fairbanks last voted on a proposal to consolidate the governments of the city of Fairbanks and the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
The financial troubles of the city and the tight finances of the borough could warrant renewed discussion about merging the two governments.
The Alaska Constitution, in Article X, calls for “maximum local self-government with a minimum of local government units.”
And that is what the most-recent effort, begun in 1998 with a petition eventually signed by about 4,000 residents, wanted to achieve.
Proponents of that plan, which was rejected by Fairbanks city and borough voters by a 4-to-1 ratio in a 2001 vote, stated in their initial petition that merging the two governments would save more than $2 million annually “through reduction of elected, executive and other duplicative positions” such as law department, finance, clerk, and purchasing personnel. The petition also cited potential “efficiencies in data processing and in maintenance of buildings, grounds, vehicles and equipment.”
Let’s be clear up front, however. Consolidation would be a radical and complex step.
The final report from the state Local Boundary Commission on that earlier Fairbanks consolidation plan quotes a written history of the post-reorganization period of the Anchorage government as “starting with chaos …”
Here’s how the Fairbanks proposal would have worked, according to the petition and the findings of the Local Boundary Commission:
• The city of Fairbanks would become a city service area, with the same boundaries as the city. All functions of the current city would transfer to the service area, including the ability to levy alcohol and tobacco taxes for exclusive use within the new service area.
• The city’s permanent fund, established from the 1997 sale of the city-owned Municipal Utilities System, would become an asset of the new service area and be used for the exclusive benefit of the service area.
• All of the ordinances and regulations in force in the city would carry over to the new service area unless suspended by the new consolidated government.
• All of the borough’s powers would transfer to the new consolidated government, as would all ordinances and regulations unless suspended by the new consolidated government.
• The city of North Pole and the school district would be left untouched by combining the city and the borough.
All of that sounds mostly like simply changing the name of the city to just a city service area. But there were some notable changes, such as the extension throughout the new government of the power of solid waste collections at the transfer stations. Fairbanks city residents today, for example, aren’t supposed to use the transfer sites; they don’t pay a portion of their property taxes to operate them.
Also, bed tax revenue raised in the city service area, where most of the hotels and motels are located, would be available to the new consolidated government for use beyond the service area borders.
There are issues beyond consolidation itself.
The transition, for one, wouldn’t be cost-free. Estimates made during the 2001 consolidation campaign ranged from $1 million to $6 million.
Law enforcement became a significant point raised by opponents of the 2001 effort.
The city’s Police Department was to remain a function of the proposed city service area, with Alaska State Troopers continuing to serve the region outside the service area. Opponents argued, however, that the Legislature might cut funding for troopers serving in the consolidated local government to force the new government to tax its residents to create an areawide local police agency to replace troopers. That’s an issue that plagued law enforcement in the Hillside area of Anchorage.
Consolidation has numerous pluses and minuses.
Still, 18 years is a long time to go without a serious discussion of the merits of consolidating the city of Fairbanks and the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
Three of the four candidates for mayor in the recent city election indicated in a response to a Daily News-Miner survey question that consolidation should be discussed again. Only Mayor Jim Matherly disagreed.
Thoughts and circumstances can change over the years. Having another look at consolidation can’t hurt.