Recent $120,000 study into possible Dillingham Census Area Borough finds paths to feasibility but so far little to no support or interest from the region.
KDLG: The Bristol Bay Native Association (BBNA) led a task force that hired the McDowell Group to look into the feasibility of creating a borough for Dillingham and the surrounding communities in the existing Southwest Region School District.
The study, released in December, found sufficient financial resources to pay for borough formation.
While the borough may be workable, communities in the census area remain skeptical, pointing out concerns of possible loss of autonomy and tax increases.
BBNA’s program development director Patty Heyano says she understands the skepticism around the borough.
“I see the benefits (of a borough),” she says. “But villages are concerned about being overpowered by the interests of Dillingham and an extra layer of government. We had to explain that we are just studying and not creating a borough.”
Study author Susan Bell of the McDowell Group said the study was a good opportunity to find common ground and it revealed enough potential revenue to make the borough a reality.
“A takeaway is that if there is a will, whether it is to improve economic development, education or regional development that there is a tax base to support it,” she said. “There is economic activity in the region and there would be sufficient financial resources to pay for borough formation.”
Bell said apprehension to a property tax and a large fishery tax led the study to look into a broader revenue stream. “There is an interest in making sure that different aspects of the economy and not only fishing are contributing to the costs,” Bell said.
“There was a lot of time spent in looking at the visitor industry and the lodges and the location.”
Herman Nelson Sr., president of the Koliganek Village Council, does not see in the study proposals his members will support.
“Once you become a borough one of the things they are going to do in the future is start taxing the communities and we don’t want that,” he says.
Nelson believes villages will lose control of their resources in a borough, taxes will increase, and Dillingham would benefit the most.
“I don’t think that a borough is such a good thing for our communities. When you have a borough you suck in all these smaller villages and the one that ends up benefiting off of everything is the one that has the biggest population,” he says. “It definitely would be a bigger burden.”
The city of Manokotak has opposed previous borough formation plans and mayor Melvin Andrew believes the city will oppose this attempt, too.
“There are several factors, but mainly they don’t want another form of government over here,” Andrew said of the sentiments in Manokotak. “Also their fear, and I share this, is that the revenue created by the borough will go for Dillingham and for the smaller communities there will be a smaller share if not none at all.”
Togiak city administrator Daryl Thompson said people in the village simply can’t afford to pay in taxes.
“We are very poor in the rural villages. I mean there is not a lot of income,” he said. “People in the villages have to make a decision, do we buy oil to keep our home warm or do we buy food to feed our family?”
According to the study, the benefits of a borough include possible improvements to education, regional economy and quality of life. These would come through an increase in tourism revenue, more control of the land, and more authority over resource development.
“You get a much larger political voice in Juneau and elsewhere,” Aleknagik mayor Carolyn Smith said of the benefits of forming a borough in the Dillingham Census Area.
Susan Bell she said the overarching goal of the study was to make sure that the tribes were involved in the process, something stakeholders say was overlooked in prior studies.
“A key question on the table is what will be the role of the tribes if this is pursued and there is a lot of flexibility there,” Bell says.
The fourth and final task force meeting is scheduled for March 17 in Dillingham. Heyano hopes the last meeting is a chance for villages to have a deeper conversation.
“This process was supposed to bring people from the villages and have an opportunity to discuss amongst themselves,” she said. “I really want to come up with something at the meeting that shows that the group got something out of the process.”
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