Unorganized Borough, Alaska
The Unorganized Borough is the part of the U.S. state of Alaska not contained in any of its 19 organized boroughs. It encompasses more than half of Alaska's area, 323,440 square miles (837,700 km2), an area larger than any other U.S. state. As of the 2000 U.S. Census, it had a population of 81,803, 13% of the population of the state.
Unique among the United States, Alaska is not entirely subdivided into organized county equivalents. To facilitate census taking in the vast unorganized area, the United States Census Bureau, in cooperation with the state, divided the Unorganized Borough into 11 census areas beginning with the 1970 census. The current list of census areas follows:
- Aleutians West Census Area
- Bethel Census Area
- Dillingham Census Area
- Hoonah-Angoon Census Area
- Nome Census Area
- Petersburg Census Area
- Prince of Wales-Hyder Census Area
- Southeast Fairbanks Census Area
- Valdez-Cordova Census Area
- Wade Hampton Census Area
- Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area
This vast area has no local-level government other than that of school districts and municipalities within its limits. Many of the villages do have tribal governments, however. Except within some incorporated cities, all government services in the Unorganized Borough, including law enforcement, are provided by the state or by the Tribal government. School districts in the Unorganized Borough are operated either by cities, in those limited instances when the city has chosen to undertake those powers, or through the general guidance of the state Department of Education under the auspices of Rural Education Attendance Areas (see below).
During the 1950s, when the push for the territory of Alaska to become a state was at its height, the presence of municipal government was extremely limited and scattered. Territory-wide, there were no more than a few dozen incorporated cities, and a small handful of service districts, broken into public utility districts and independent school districts. The service districts were authorized by the territorial legislature in 1935 to allow unincorporated areas limited powers to provide services and to tax for them.
The United States Congress had forbidden the territory from establishing counties. A book[which?] was published shortly before[when?] passage of statehood by a San Francisco-based consulting group advocating a county structure for Alaska, but there was never any serious drive to establish counties in Alaska.
The delegates of the Alaska Constitution had, in fact, debated the merits of establishing counties, and had rejected the idea in favor of creating a system of boroughs, both organized and unorganized. The intent of the framers of the constitution was to provide for maximum local self-government with a minimum of local government units and tax-levying jurisdictions.
The minutes of the constitutional convention indicate that counties were not used as a form of local government for various reasons. The failure of some local economies to generate enough revenue to support separate counties was an important issue as well as the desire to use a model that would reflect the unique character of Alaska, provide for maximum local input, and avoid a body of county case law already in existence.
Instead, Alaska adopted boroughs as a form of regional government. This regionalization was an attempt to avoid having a number of independent, limited-purpose governments with confusing boundaries and inefficient governmental operations. The territorial service districts had amounted to this much, but were seen by many as an important foundation in government being able to provide services without becoming all-powerful and unnecessarily intrusive, an argument which would surface time and again during various attempts by the legislature to create organized boroughs out of portions of the unorganized borough.
Alaska formally adopted the borough structure by statute in 1961, and envisioned boroughs to serve as an "all-purpose" form of local government to avoid the perceived[by whom?] problems of county government in the lower 48 states as well as Hawaii. According to Article X of the Alaska Constitution, areas of the state unable to support borough government were to be served by several unorganized boroughs, which were to be mechanisms for the state to regionalize services; however, separate unorganized boroughs were never created. The entire state was defined as one vast unorganized borough with the Borough Act of 1961, and, over the ensuing years, Alaska's organized boroughs were carved out of it.
Alaska's first organized borough, and the only one incorporated after passage of the 1961 legislation, was the Bristol Bay Borough. As pressure would increase for other areas of the state to form boroughs, this led to the Mandatory Borough Act of 1963. This legislation called for all election districts in the state over a certain threshold in population to incorporate as boroughs by January 1, 1964.
To wit, a resolution of the State of Alaska's Local Boundary Commission introduced in January 2009 spells this out in greater detail:
- WHEREAS, the 1963 Alaska State Legislature passed, and Governor Egan signed into law, the "Mandatory Borough Act" (Chapter 52, SLA 1963), dictating that certain regions of Alaska - those encompassing Ketchikan, Juneau, Sitka, Kodiak Island, Kenai Peninsula, Anchorage, the Matanuska-Susitna valleys, and Fairbanks - form organized boroughs by January 1, 1964...
Furthermore, Rural Education Attendance Areas were established by the Legislature in 1975. This had the effect of creating regional divisions of the unorganized borough for the purpose of establishing rural school districts. 21 REAAs were originally created; many of those would eventually be absorbed into organized boroughs over time.
The battle over future (mandatory) boroughs
A number of organized boroughs have been incorporated in the years since the Mandatory Borough Act, but most (the primary examples being the North Slope Borough, the Northwest Arctic Borough and the Denali Borough), were incorporated to exploit a source of significant taxation potential (natural resource extraction, tourism, etc.).
The unorganized status of this vast area is not without controversy. Many residents of the Unorganized Borough, particularly those in the larger communities which may be most susceptible to organized borough incorporation, have been vociferous in stating their opposition to incorporation as a borough, and in stating why the status quo suits them just fine. Many point out that they would already live in an organized borough if they desired that lifestyle and the level of government which came with it.
On the other hand, many Alaskans residing in organized boroughs feel that they unfairly subsidize residents of the Unorganized Borough, especially for education. In 2003, the Alaska Division of Community Advocacy identified eight areas within the Unorganized Borough meeting standards for incorporation . Bills have been introduced in the Alaska Legislature to compel these areas to incorporate, though as of 2009[update], none has been signed into law.
- Bethel (the largest city in the Unorganized Borough)
- Fort Yukon
- Hooper Bay
- "Governing Alaska: The Territory of Alaska". Alaska History and Cultural Studies. Retrieved 22 September 2013.
- Legislative Directive for Unorganized Borough Review
- Map of proposed model borough boundaries Alaska Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development (1997)