Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 10:54 AM on Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Assembly to run over questions about track

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writer


Replacement of Homer High School's track, which was closed last week because of safety concerns, will be discussed Tuesday by the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly's finance committee. School district officials have been invited to meet with the committee.

In addition, Borough Mayor Dave Carey and assembly members Bill Smith, who represents Homer, and Mako Haggerty, who represents the southern peninsula, will introduce an ordinance at the assembly's regular meeting later that day that, if passed, will direct $663,000 to partially fund construction of a new track, estimated to cost $750,000-$1.1 million. The money comes from funds not used by the school district last year.

After learning of the ordinance, Joe Arness, school board president, wrote to Carey and Assembly President Gary Knopp, saying the proposal raises questions about the district's process for dealing with maintenance projects.

"While we are generally confused about how that happens, we have been led to believe that such a process exists," wrote Arness. "Departing from that process is a step which we believe should be done thoughtfully and carefully."

Although recognizing the "urgency of the replacement of the track in Homer," Arness requested establishment of a working group consisting of three board members, three assembly members, a couple of interested public citizens and representatives from the borough and the school district's maintenance departments. The group's role would be to review how capital projects are funded and completed under the current system and make suggestions for "more efficient-transparent methods."

The Homer High School track was built when the school was constructed in 1985. In 2009, Dr. Allan Gee, principal of Homer High School, closed the track to events involving other schools due to safety concerns arising from the track's disrepair.

In an Oct. 13 letter the school district's Risk Management Committee recommended to Carey and Dr. Steve Atwater, district superintendent the track be "shut down immediately, posted accordingly, and rendered unusable in order to protect the borough and school district from liability and subsequent litigation."

Arness maintains such closure does not constitute the track being condemned. Colette Thompson, borough attorney and a member of the Risk Management Committee, agrees with Arness.

"We did not recommend condemnation," said Thompson. "We recommended it be closed because of all the testimony and pictures indicating it was unsafe and testimony (at a recent borough assembly meeting) indicating the culpability of the borough and school district for the unsafe condition."

The reality, according to Carey, is that the track "is in such a sad condition of disrepair that it cannot be used."

"What we were told and the action we took was to immediately say no one can use it. Now, I'm not using the word 'condemned,' ╔ but we're clearly saying it cannot be used," said Carey.

Carey also said he didn't understand what was confusing about the borough's capital project process. As explained to him by Craig Chapman, borough finance director, "there is a process we've used for 20 years."

"This is what I believe they call 'smoke and mirrors,'" said Carey. "They say we don't understand the process, but it is still good enough we'll keep it."

Tracks for high schools in Kenai, Soldotna and Homer have been lumped together in the school district's legislative request for funding for the past two years. With Homer the worst of the three tracks, it has since been separated from the other two.

Smith said he hoped the upcoming meeting would provide "some answers from these guys about how the process could go awry, that we let our facilities get in this condition and that we're looking at a similar situation for Kenai and Soldotna in the near future."

Liz Downing, who represents Homer on the school board, said the district is in favor of the borough using the additional funds for capital projects and "directing borough maintenance to go ahead and work on the Homer High track. ╔ There is no one in this process that wasn't in favor of this happening. We're all on the same side."

She explained the intent of Arness' letter was to point out the need for a clearer process for handling projects such as the track that are of a medium price range.

Haggerty praised Carey and Smith for their effort to find funding to get the project started.

"They've turned over lots of rocks to find this pocket of money," said Haggerty, aware that now the ordinance has to win the assembly's approval.

Considering how a borough-owned facility could fall into such disrepair that it was no longer usable, Haggerty said, "We can't let that stuff happen. If we build a track, we need to maintain it. We have to make priorities, make choices. Apparently the track was not one of the choices."

For Carey, whose term as mayor ends next month, the Homer High School track is a priority.

"Basically, that I'm trying to do is work with the assembly and let's get this taken care of. It's long overdue," said Carey. "Homer, as a whole, has a right to a track like other communities have and we need to take care of this now."

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.