Story last updated at 1:45 p.m. Thursday, April 25, 2002

Time running out for KPC campus funding
by Joel Gay
Staff Writer

Rep. Drew Scalzi has made the $3 million campus renovation request for the Kachemak Bay Campus of Kenai Peninsula College his No. 1 capital priority this year, and Sen. John Torgerson has thrown his support to it, but that still may not be enough to get the project funded.

Campus officials are hoping this will be the year they nail down funding for the new classrooms and laboratories they thought they would get more than 10 years ago. But those hopes could go up in smoke <> as they have so many times before <> unless the Legislature agrees to spend the money.

"This is it," said campus director Carol Swartz. "Every year we ask, and people have been cynical because it's not a controversial project, it's not sexy. But this is a community issue. This has to be the year. We have to get that kind of pressure from the public."

The college moved into the old post office building on Pioneer Avenue in 1986. "It was supposed to be for five years," Swartz said, and although planning started immediately for a new campus, it wasn't until 1991 that the University of Alaska bought 4.5 acres downtown on which to build it.

"Since 1992 we've been trying to get to the second phase, which was construction of classrooms and labs," Swartz said.

With construction estimated at upwards of $8 million, however, the project was never deemed a high enough priority for funding.

Last year, after the city threatened to evict the college from its west campus unless the university began working more diligently on a new campus plan, university officials provided $50,000 to review the Kachemak Bay Campus expansion plans. They dropped the idea of new construction and instead chose to expand the east campus by building a two-story, 9,000-square-foot addition. The total cost, including exterior work on the old building to make the campus look like it was designed that way, has now fallen to $3 million.

The reduced cost should be a selling point to the Legislature, Swartz said. In addition, the decision to expand at the current site frees up the college to sell or trade its downtown acreage. There are no specific plans for the land yet, she said, but because the proposed addition would erase a number of parking places, the university land might be traded for land adjacent to the college for parking.

The stars have never been in better alignment for the project, Swartz said.

"This is the year for the Legislature to come through for us. We've reduced our project, trying to be respectful of the state's budget concerns," she said, and it's time for it to be funded.

Scalzi said he agrees, in part because other areas of Alaska have seen their University of Alaska branches expanded while Homer's has sat idle, and partly because the Kenai Peninsula Borough has continually aided the college through a 0.1-mill levy.

However, there are major hurdles to overcome before the project wins approval, he said. First, the Senate must approve a capital bill, yet the Senate has hardly touched that legislation. According to Mary Jackson, Torgerson's chief of staff, Torgerson submitted the college's request on his capital list, but work on the capital budget won't begin until the operating budget is complete.

"It's still too far away to call," she said.

If the Senate capital budget includes the college funding, the House must then also agree. That's up to the House Finance Committee.

To complicate things, "I don't know how it's going to go because the governor didn't put it in" his own budget, Scalzi said Tuesday.

Jackson agreed that the campus would have a better chance of funding if it were in Knowles' budget.

"Each project stands on its own merits, and if each agency supports it, it's got a better chance. If he'd turned it in, it would've helped," she said.

Knowles' $925 million capital request contains three local projects: funding for a 1 million-gallon water tank for the city, $1 million in construction funds for the Kachemak Bay Research Reserve office, and $102,000 for a new city library.

Scalzi said the fate of the Kachemak Bay campus funding could be decided in the last days, hours or even minutes of the legislative session, which ends May 14. In the confusion, he might be able to slip something in, he said.

The same holds true for new statewide revenue measures that he has supported, yet which haven't gained majority support in the House. Scalzi said he dislikes the alcohol tax that has been proposed, simply because one group shouldn't be singled out for taxation while others are not.

"I can't support that by itself," he said. "It sends the wrong message, that one group should be taxed and not another. If it was part of a bigger plan, I'd support it, because in all fairness, we all have to pony up."

As the Legislature starts building toward its finale, Scalzi said he will be watching closely for opportunities to act, including on behalf of Kachemak Bay Campus.

"I'm sitting on the sidelines," he said, "looking for a big opening."