Wrangell mayor urges US Senate to keep federal funds flowing

Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka. (KSTK photo)

Alaska cities and boroughs can’t develop or collect property taxes on federal land, but sometimes they’ve got a lot of it. 

The City and Borough of Wrangell, for instance, has just 2,500 people, but covers an area that’s larger than Delaware. 

Wrangell Mayor Steve Prysunka testified in the U.S. Senate Thursday in favor of two federal programs that reimburse local governments for the public land in their backyard.

Because of the Tongass National Forest, Prysunka said, more than 97 percent of his borough is owned and managed by the feds.

“This severely restricts our ability to grow our economy to create the tax base necessary to provide the legally mandated services to residents and visitors alike,” he said. “There is no ‘small-community exemption’ to relax a rule for sewage treatment, emergency services or education standards.”

The mayor spoke to the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, at the invitation of its chair, Sen. Lisa Murkowski. 

The PILT program, or Payment in Lieu of Taxes, funnels about $30 million a year to Alaska municipalities. Secure Rural Schools sends almost $11 million, primarily to Southeast Alaska. Prysunka says it’s essential for school districts. 

“In Alaska teachers do a short of shuffle. And if we’re uncertain about our funding it creates uncertainty about how many teachers we are going to be able to afford,” he testified.

Wrangell receives about $1.5 million in total from the two programs. That’s a significant sum for the borough, but not among the largest allocations. The Kenai Peninsula Borough and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough each get close to $4 million.

Bills that would continue the federal funding are making their way through Congress now.

Alaska Public Media reporter Liz Ruskin contributed reporting.

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