Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 6:46 PM on Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Track on Navarre's to-do list

Getting legislative funds one option

By McKibben Jackinsky
Staff writer

After less than a week in office, newly elected Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said securing funding to replace the Homer High School track is high on his to-do list.

"The goal, of course, is to make sure the track issue is addressed in the next building season," Navarre told the Homer News on Tuesday. "That should be a priority and something the people in Homer really want to target, without having any further delay."

Navarre said his first avenue for project funding, estimated to cost between $750,000 and $1.2 million, would be requesting a legislative appropriation.

"It would resolve the issue without further reducing the borough's general fund," said Navarre.

"So, I think that's really the first approach that should be taken. If that's not successful, then we can look at internal funding sources."

Former Borough Mayor David Carey had prepared an ordinance for introduction at the Nov. 1 borough assembly meeting that, if approved, would have directed $663,000 from the borough's general fund be used toward track replacement. It was co-sponsored by assembly members Bill Smith, representing Homer, and Mako Haggerty, representing the southern Kenai Peninsula. Prior to introduction, Haggerty requested the ordinance be withdrawn.

"There were some earnest discussion prior to going into the meeting between a lot of the principals, the 'Save Our Track' people and Navarre, and (Navarre) had other ideas for sources for that money rather than pulling it out of the general fund. That's why we pulled it," said Haggerty

Smith also supported pulling the ordinance in favor of waiting for Navarre to take office.

"He felt there were other avenues we could pursue and he was pretty darned certain we'll get the money through some avenue for rebuilding the track," Smith said. "There'll be another month before (the assembly has) a meeting and that'll be plenty of time for him to get his feet on the ground and talk about this topic and go forward."

Built in 1985, the track's crumbling surface, holes and cracks caused Dr. Allan Gee, HHS principal, to close it in 2009 to events involving other schools. It was one of several tracks for which the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has requested, but not received, legislative funding in past years. Comparing it to the other tracks, Dave Spence, head of school district maintenance, told the Homer News in July, "While they definitely need to have work and need to be replaced, they're not as deteriorated as Homer's track is."

Liz Downing, who represents Homer on the school board, has described the track's condition as "deplorable."

"It's not fair that our students and community are basically on a dangerous track and that our community doesn't have access to something taken for granted in other larger districts," said Downing.

A "Save Our Track" committee formed by Bill Steyer, the school's coach for track and field and cross country running, and area athletes has worked to raise public awareness of the track's condition. During an August meeting in Homer between school district administrators and local residents, Dr. Steve Atwater, superintendent, encouraged strong local support.

"Can you rally people to support the track? That's what legislators will listen to, more than just the user group," said Atwater.

Replacing the track has since been included on the city's priority list. Steyer said letters of support were written by the Homer Chamber of Commerce, as well as South Peninsula Hospital, a sponsor of Relay for Life, an annual event held on the track that attracts hundreds of participants and has raised thousands of dollars for the American Cancer Society. Local support has now become a sticking point.

"We do not believe that school district maintenance projects should become part of a political process which is open to the vagaries of public pressure," Joe Arness, school board president, wrote in a letter to Carey and Assembly President Gary Knopp.

Navarre also said reacting to public pressure was risky.

"If you get into funding issues, even very important ones because there's a ground swell of very strong public opinion and emotion associated with it, it opens a Pandora's box because there's a lot of issues like that. Not the same as the track, but a lot of issues around the borough and school district that you might end up with people trying to come in and focus on it," said Navarre.

Still, he praised the effort to draw attention to the need for a new track.

"The group that was put together and led by the track coach and his group has done an outstanding job of elevating the issue to the point that everybody is aware of it. I am clearly aware of it and want to find a solution for it. ... They've done a lot of the necessary work to get it on everybody's radar screen and we should find a solution for it," said Navarre.

The track has been closed to all users since October in response to a letter from the Kenai Peninsula Borough and School District Risk Management Committee, comprised of Colette Thompson, borough attorney; Dave Jones, assistant superintendent; Craig Chapman, borough finance director; and Julie Cisco, risk manager. The committee's recommendation was based on testimony of the track's unsafe condition and the borough's liability.

Navarre said he was meeting with Steyer this week to discuss strategies for funding a new Homer High School track.

"It's front and center on my list of things to accomplish," said Navarre. "At this point, I've had some experience in the process and I'm going to figure out some way to address the need. I need some time to do that. That's what I'm going to convey to (Steyer) when I meet with him."

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