A senior center bond question is one step closer to appearing on Skagway’s October election ballot. The borough assembly held a first reading of the bond ordinance at its meeting Thursday. But assembly members agreed that if the question does get a place on the ballot, they need to make an effort to inform the public about the project.
Last fall, the local ballot posed a question about the municipality entering into a 35-year tidelands lease extension with White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. It was rejected by voters. Assemblyman Steve Burnham Jr. says officials struggled to convey information about the complicated lease to the public. Although the senior center project is a smaller-scale endeavor, Burnham doesn’t want to repeat that mistake.
“It’s just a matter of did we succeed with getting the proper information in the voters’ hands so they could make an informed decision? And that’s what we failed at in the past,” Burnham said. “And I don’t want to do that again.”
Burnham pointed out the dozens of pages of documents about the senior center and housing project. There’s a needs assessment outlining the senior services Skagway lacks. There’s a financial feasibility analysis, a conceptual design, a construction cost estimate. The list goes on.
“And the public isn’t going to read them,” Burnham said. “It doesn’t matter how much access they have. I could go door-to-door and hand paper copies and digital thumb drives to everyone. And people wouldn’t read it. It’s too long and it’s hard to understand.”
He said he supports the project, but trying to rush it onto this fall’s ballot might set it up for failure.
Assemblyman Jay Burnham has been working with the committee leading the effort to build a senior center and housing facility. He said the project isn’t too complex to explain to the public in the next couple months.
“It seems pretty straightforward,” Jay Burnham said. “And the way I see it we’re putting it out on the ballot — even though it’s kind of rushed — to get the public’s opinion on it. They’re gonna say whether or not they want to have it.”
The assembly voted unanimously to pass the first reading of the ordinance. It will be up for final approval at the next meeting. Assembly members agreed that if the question does go on the ballot, they should hold public meetings to explain the project and the way it would be funded. The up to $7 million bond comes with the possibility of a property tax increase.
After voters rejected the proposed tidelands lease with White Pass, borough officials struggled with how to move forward. Recently, the assembly voted to re-engage with the railroad in lease discussions. But a meeting has not been set.
White Pass President John Finlayson offered a suggestion at Thursday’s meeting.
“I feel the issue can be simplified,” Finlayson said. “Simply, what has the relationship been with the city and White Pass? What has it meant both socially and economically for the city’s growth over 25 years? And is there a better solution for the city over the next 25 years?”
Finlayson recommended a third party be hired to study the city’s relationship with White Pass, how it’s impacted the economy and how changing that relationship would impact the city.
“Some might question why I care about what’s best for the city and they might question our dedication to be good community citizens,” Finlayson said. “We have 200 employees that live in town with their families. And it is very much in our interest to see that their needs are looked after. It’s in our interest to see that their children have a bright future in town.”
Some Skagway residents have advocated for the city taking control of the tidelands leased by White Pass when the current lease expires in 2023.
Borough Manager Scott Hahn cautioned the assembly about following Finlayson’s suggestion, saying people might interpret it as the municipality ‘doing White Pass’ bidding.’ The assembly decided to add it as a discussion item at the next meeting Sept. 1.
The assembly also addressed an ongoing public safety issue: dangerous tour bus driving behavior. Assemblyman Tim Cochran said he’s heard complaints from truck drivers.
“These buses are heading north, they’re cutting across into the southbound, there’s no pullout, because there’s a bear on the side of the road they let people out to take pictures. On a blind corner, that truck is coming and can’t stop and he’s forced into that other lane so he doesn’t hit the bus and the people out there without being able to see what’s beyond him. And that should be criminally negligent.”
Borough officials will send out a letter to tour bus companies requesting they address road safety with drivers ‘before a catastrophic accident occurs.’