By Matt Buxton

FAIRBANKS — There’s nearly 80 years of experience in utilities, management and engineering between the two candidates for Seat B on the Interior Gas Utility Board.

Incumbent Mike Meeks, the board’s chair, is in charge of public works at Fort Wainwright Army Base and has a career in the Army since 1979. His challenger Clark Milne has worked in Fairbanks as a civil engineer for 40 years.

The seven-member board has four at-large seats elected by the voters and three seats that are each appointed by one of the local governments. This is the second time IGU board seats have been up for election since the utility was formed by the local governments in 2012.

This summer marked the installation of 70 miles of lines in the North Pole area, but the future of the utility and the overall effort to bring natural gas to the Interior is still far from certain.

The two found agreement with each other on nearly every issue facing the utility.

One of the biggest issues facing the utility is the state’s plan to purchase the private Fairbanks Natural Gas, which serves the city of Fairbanks.

Both Meeks and Milne would like to see the Interior Gas Utility take over ownership of Fairbanks Natural Gas and unify distribution and storage.

“One of the best fallouts is if the two are merged they’ll merge their thinking in storage,” Milne said. “Having two utilities meant we would have to build them separately, now the sum can be optimized.”

Ultimately, the decision will be up to the state, which is currently exploring transferring the management of Fairbanks Natural Gas to either IGU, the city of Fairbanks or the Golden Valley Electric Association.

“Which one of those is a gas utility that has already been through the (Regulatory Commission of Alaska)? There’s only one answer to that, and it’s IGU,” Meeks said. “To me, a gas utility should be the one that takes over a gas utility.”

They both support a postage stamp rate that would charge all of the utility’s customers the same price regardless of where they are in the borough.

“Everyone in the public has contributed through taxes so we need to have a community solution and not give one set of residents an advantage over another,” Meeks said.

Milne agreed it was an important issue of fairness, and said equal prices for customers will be “much less distracting” for the public.

Both are advocates for pushing IGU to continue to build out its second phase of distribution lines even though the state’s efforts to get additional gas to the Interior have been delayed.

“I believe they need to continue construction with Phase 2, and it can be informed with what was discovered in Phase 1. There were complications of right of way with the clearing,” Milne said.

Meeks said it’s important for the utility to not lose momentum.

“I don’t want to see a pause,” Meeks said. “We’ve got the momentum going. … I’m worried that if we stop and wait for a year it might be hard to start back.”

Neither Milne nor Meeks are currently on natural gas.

Meeks’ home is in an area that was originally within the IGU build-out plan and Milne lives in the city of Fairbanks.

Both said they would sign up for service once it becomes available.

Meeks said not only does it offer a good price for heating, that it has the added benefit of making a home more valuable.

“If you ever sell your home, you can tell people, ‘I’ve hooked up to natural gas,’” Meeks said. “And also my wife wants to be able to cook on a gas stove.”

Milne also said he plans to become a customer, noting the importance of using a cleaner burning fuel to help reduce air pollution.

“I intend to shift to gas,” Milne said. “I’m hoping to be one of the thousands in Fairbanks to switch to residential space and I hope we get a lot to convert in North Pole because I am concerned about the air quality and the cost of fuel.”

With the two candidates largely agreeing on everything, it will come down to the experience of each candidate. And on that front, the both have deep wells of knowledge when it comes to projects, utilities and management.

Meeks has plenty of direct experience in utilities.

“For all those years I’ve been dealing with some form of utilities, water, sewer, coal, electric or steam, I’ve been dealing with it,” Meeks said.
He’s also served on the board since the creation of the Interior Gas Utility and was picked by fellow board members to chair the board after Bob Shefchik left to lead the state’s efforts to find a new source of natural gas.

“I need to give back to the community and it’s one heck of a giveback,” Meeks said. “I love complex problems and challenge, and this is one complex challenge.”

Milne is newer to the Interior Gas Utility, but followed it closely for the last year and a half as part of his job with a civil engineering firm.

“I’ve been doing civil engineering and work with projects and finances and management that whole time,” Milne said. “I am semi-retired so I have the time to commit to it, so this really, really important need gets handled. … I’m glad to offer myself part of the solution.”

Milne was also nothing but complimentary of the work the board has done and the work Meeks has personally put into the project.

“I’m going to be very comfortable if Mike Meeks wins,” Milne said. “That sounds good, I’ll shake his hand and I won’t have one moment’s worry that he’ll do an absolutely marvelous job. I hope to do the same if the public votes me in.”

The municipal election is Tuesday, Oct. 6. Early voting is already available at the borough administrative building.

Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.