Assembly supports district heating, talks succession

The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly has pledged its support to Juneau Hydropower Inc.’s $25 million district heating plant proposal, which company officials said will keep heat prices low and carbon emissions lower.

At Monday’s Assembly work session, Juneau Hydropower CEO Keith Comstock and Duff Mitchell, the company’s managing director, pitched their plan to use water from the Gastineau Channel to heat Downtown Juneau. They didn’t ask for much in return.

“We’re asking for your love, tenderness and cheerleading support,” Mitchell said, channeling his inner Michael Bolton and eliciting a few chuckles from Assembly members and onlookers alike.

Mayor Mary Becker showed Juneau Hydropower some love when she moved that the Assembly write a letter of support for the plan. The rest of the Assembly turned on the tenderness when it voted, without objection, to pass Becker’s motion, but not before Assembly member Debbie White gave Comstock and Mitchell her cheerleading support by amending Becker’s motion, clarifying that it would be a “strong letter of support.”

Boasting their district-heating plant’s 300 percent efficiency rating and its ability to reduce Juneau’s dependence on fossil fuels and outside markets, Comstock and Mitchell won over some of the Assembly’s toughest critics, such as Jerry Nankervis.

“In the four years I’ve been hearing about this project, I’ve yet to hear anything about it that I don’t like,” Nankervis said after the pitch.

With the Assembly at their backs, Comstock and Mitchell have to finish answering the four major questions that Comstock said need to be resolved in order to get the project going. They’ve already answered the first two: both think the project is both economically feasible and marketable.

Now they need to finish getting their equity in order and securing financing, according to Comstock.

“This is a large project so there’s a large amount of equity that has to be put down,” he said noting that Juneau Hydropower has friends on Wall Street ready to invest in the project. As for the financing, Mitchell and Comstock said they are looking for a low-interest loan from the federal government, and they are getting “strong signals of support.”

“We wouldn’t be here talking to you if we didn’t intend to go into construction, and in order for that to happen we have to have all of these things in place,” Comstock said.

Matters of succession

Unlike the decision to support district heating, the Assembly’s call to hold a special mayoral election in March was not so easily made. In December the Assembly decided with a 5–3 vote to hold a mid-year election to find a replacement for former mayor Greg Fisk, who died in Nov. 31.

The matter of succession, which was not clearly defined in city code, drove a wedge between the members of the Assembly in favor of the special election, which will cost the city $35,000, and those opposed. On Monday evening as Assembly members began discussing how best to amend the portion of city code relating to succession, everyone seemed to agree on at least one thing: Politics should be left out of the process.

To make sure this happens, the Assembly discussed creating a stipulation that would determine whether a special election would be held based on the amount of time until the next regular election. The Assembly discussed drawing a line at six months. For instance, if the Assembly found itself without a mayor, and the next election was more than six months away, it would have to hold a special election. If the next regular election was less than six months away, the deputy mayor would fill the role.

Though the Assembly didn’t ultimately decide on any such stipulation Monday — instead kicking the matter back to City Attorney Amy Mead, who will draft an ordinance to be heard at the next work session — the idea was well received.

“To have that clarity is important; it depoliticizes it,” Assembly member Kate Troll said. “The value of depoliticizing what we went through is huge.”

In December, Troll and Nankervis were on opposing sides when it came to the matter of succession. Troll voted for the special mayoral election; Nankervis voted against it. On Monday, they were in the same proverbial boat.

“I believe that if you don’t have some sort of hard line, then we get into the mess that we’re in right now,” Nankervis said.

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