Skagway voters will decide this fall whether to bond for a proposed senior center and housing facility. At a meeting Thursday, the borough assembly unanimously voted to add the bond question to the Oct. 4 ballot. The borough’s tentative plan is to pay for the $6 million bond with property tax increases.
Some Skagway residents have been working for years to build a permanent gathering space for seniors. Right now, seniors use a daycare building as a temporary center in the winter. They have senior lunches at a local church. But this estimated $5.9 million project would offer a year-round place for the town’s aging population.
Michael Baish heads the committee that’s led the senior center charge. He said this project would honor the Skagway’s history.
“Skagway sells it’s history, it’s our business. We have a unique history,” Baish said. “And the living history we have is the people who are here. I think that this senior center needs to be recognized as a place for history to continue and to be recorded.”
An assessment conducted as part of the project’s planning found a shortage of services and housing for Skagway’s seniors. So, seven apartments were incorporated into the about 10,000-square-foot building. The committee is now calling the endeavor the ‘Skaguay Community Activity Center and Senior Housing complex.’ Committee member Ginny Cochran addressed the assembly.
“We would like this new building to be a community activity center, not just a senior center,” Cochran said. “In fact, we would like to get rid of that word: ‘senior,’ ‘cause it kind of scares some people. Although I notice quite a few gray hairs up there.”
A couple assembly members said they support the project, but worry about the cost. Spencer Morgan said the slate of ongoing and future capital projects is going to add up to a lot of money.
“My concern is the timing right now,” Morgan said. “We’ve got some other projects that are gonna be coming up. I’m a little concerned where we’re gonna be bonding-capacity-wise if this gets approved. This will put us close to $30 million that will be bonded, if I look at those numbers right.”
Skagway currently has $20 million in bond debt.
The assembly was able to cut down on the proposed bond amount for the senior project. At first, it was estimated to cost $7 million. With some adjustments to the design, the cost is now about $6 million.
After making that revision, the assembly unanimously passed the ordinance, sending the bond question to the ballot for the public to decide.
If voters approve the measure, the borough’s current plan is to raise mill rates to pay off the debt on the bond. Resident Tim Bourcy asked that part of that discussion focus on the disparity in mill rates between service areas. Bourcy said service areas 1 and 2 pay ‘the lion’s share’ of property taxes.
“I just think it’s time to revisit the way the mill rate is assessed in the community,” Bourcy said.
He pointed to projects the town has bonded for in the past that are still getting paid off, like the library and clinic, which benefit all service areas.
“It’s time that it’s spread a little more equitably across the municipality,” said Bourcy.
Assembly members seemed open to having that discussion if they decide to raise taxes.
Residents also spoke up about the city potentially selling the historic Rapuzzi House. The reason? Money. Borough Manager Scott Hahn has said that the cost of restoration of the house just isn’t feasible in the town’s current financial situation. But some residents, like Jeff Brady, asked the assembly to reconsider.
“It’s a gem that should not be let go,” Brady said.
After hearing from the public, Mayor Mark Schaefer said the municipality should ‘probably keep’ the Rapuzzi House.
Assemblyman Morgan suggested forming a conservation committee to brainstorm ideas for the building’s future.
The assembly also heard from members of the public in support of bringing in a third party port consultant to facilitate re-engaging in tidelands lease discussions with White Pass and Yukon Route Railroad. It’s been nearly a year since a proposed 35-year lease extension was rejected by voters. Now, the assembly wants to restart talks in an effort to make improvements to areas of the port currently controlled by the railroad.
The assembly expects to review port consultant proposals at its next meeting, Sept. 15.