Two candidates want to fill a Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly seat representing a sprawling district that includes Sterling, Funny River, part of Kalifornsky Beach Road and an area along the Sterling Highway south of Soldotna.
District 5 was represented by former assembly member Stan Welles from 2014 until August 2017, when resigned for medical reasons. On Oct. 3, voters in the district will choose between Sterling resident Norm Blakeley and K-Beach resident Leslie Morton to replace him.
The two agree in principle on many of the issues that affect the district but disagree on particulars. For one, Blakeley largely opposes raising taxes, preferring to cut expenses in the existing borough budget, while Morton says she’d consider some taxes to help shore up the budget without cutting services. However, they agree that the budget has a problem and has to be the top priority for the borough assembly.
Blakeley, originally from Idaho, moved to Alaska 42 years ago and has owned a number of businesses in the community over the years as well as working for oil companies. These days, he runs Blakeley’s Auction Co. and Alaska Trading Co. and Loan in Soldotna. He regularly hosts auctions for events and charity fundraisers in the community as well.
Concern about the increasing budgets and corresponding increases in taxes inspired him to run for office, Blakeley said.
“I’m just concerned about the budget cycle, how it runs; I feel like it’s not only the borough but the states and a lot of municipalities spend more money than they take in and expect us to pay for it,” he said.
At a Wednesday forum at the Funny River Community Center, he added that when he heard that borough mayoral candidate Charlie Pierce was planning to run, he saw an opportunity to work together because he and Pierce have similar opinions.
The assembly would not be his first stint in elected public office — he also served on the borough’s Road Service Area board several years ago, the members of which are elected. There aren’t any particular burning issues on the forefront of his mind, but the borough could look at expenses more carefully, he said.
“I think we’re all concerned about it,” he said. “I have family members and friends and a lot of them have been laid off and taken cuts in pay. Businesses have taken cuts and employees have taken cuts … and I don’t know if that’s been distributed across the board with the government.”
Morton, who has spent most of her career working for the federal government and Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, said she chose to run both because she felt she wanted to see herself better represented in the borough government and because she found herself with the time after the school district laid off most of its English Language Learner tutors. She hopes to bring a different perspective to stimulate discussion and problem-solving on the assembly, she said.
“I feel like the borough assembly is pretty homogenous,” she said. “…Every person on the assembly represents the whole borough, not just their district.”
Though she has some experience on the employee end of government working with budgets and the public — she once held a series of public meetings in Guam to try to provide public fishing access to a lake on a U.S. Navy base — this would be her first elected office. She’s been getting up to speed on the mechanics of the borough with research, including reading through the borough’s budget, attending various meetings and candidate forums and asking questions. For example, one issue that came up was concerns about Central Emergency Services response times down Funny River Road, where there’s a station but no 24/7 staff to drive an ambulance, so an ambulance has to come from Soldotna to take people to and from the hospital.
“To hear a community saying they weren’t convinced (fire and emergency response) was going to happen for them, that was shocking,” she said.
Community members have to evaluate what services they want and figure out how to pay for it, she said. Though the idea of raising taxes isn’t exciting, she said she favored sales taxes or other kinds of use taxes if the borough needs to raise revenue. Most of the people who have talked to her have said they want the borough to be efficient and for her to look for places to cut, she said.
The borough is also experiencing a decline in state contributions in a number of areas, including on municipal revenue sharing and to its public employee pension payments. Several years ago, a lawsuit resulting from miscalculations on the payments resulted in a settlement requiring the state and municipalities to cover more of the difference, and the state has gradually been shifting more of that responsibility to municipalities, something current Borough Mayor Mike Navarre has expressed frustration with. Morton said the borough having to pay for the state’s mistake frustrated her.
“So I would like to push that responsibility back to the state,” she said. “We are being asked to pay for the state’s mistake.”
Both candidates said they support the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, though Blakeley said he was troubled by the school district’s performance rankings and would like to see improvement. Morton noted that the peninsula’s schools performed better than the statewide average on the recent standardized test results and that she wanted to see more opportunities for young people to stay in the community.
They also disagree about Proposition 1, the proposal on the ballot that asks voters whether commercial cannabis operations should be banned in the borough outside the city limits. Blakeley said he was concerned about the availability of marijuana and fiscal impact of drug addiction in the community and so would vote yes; Morton said she had heard from a number of people who rely on cannabis for medical reasons and that she would like to see it continue to be regulated legally.
Early and absentee in person voting is open now until Oct. 3, the day of the official municipal regular election.