With elections just around the corner, Soldotna’s city council and mayoral candidates are preparing to tackle several issues facing the city.
For seat A, incumbent Paul Whitney is facing off against challenger Fred Sturman for a three-year term while incumbent candidate Linda Murphy is running against Dan Nelson. Current council member Pete Sprague is running unopposed for city mayor.
Whitney, a former police officer and retired criminal defense investigator, has lived in Soldotna since he and his wife and their two children — Eric and Kimberly — moved to the city in 1988. He was appointed to the Soldotna city council in 2013.
His opponent, Fred Sturman, has lived in Soldotna for nearly 50 years. Sturman has yet to hold public office but is one of the founding members of the Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers — a politically active group that has advocated for a sales tax cap, capital project spending limit. Sturman has also been part of the effort to repeal a 2008 borough ordinance that authorized general law cities in the borough to collect 3 percent sales taxes on non-prepared foods during wintertime; that effort resulted in proposition 1 which voters will decide on Oct. 6.
On issues the city faces, such as what to do with marijuana regulations within city limits, the candidates’ opinions covered a wide range — with Sturman advocating for no restrictions on commercial sale, manufacturing or testing within city limits while the other three advocated for some form of limited retail sales. Other issues, like annexation, saw a convergence of opinions with each of the four city council candidates saying that several issues would have to be considered — like the commercial viability of annexing a piece of property or the opinions of people living in an area to be annexed — before they would support such a maneuver.
Soldotna faces a drastic drop in revenue if voters in the borough decide to support Proposition 1 on Tuesday.
Sturman believes the city can handle and drop in revenue that could be more than $1 million a year by dipping into its reserve funding accounts to essentially draw on its savings. Whitney disagreed and said the city could rely on its savings to help residents transition to a lower level of services but that the practice would not be sustainable.
“Eventually that money will evaporate and run out and you’re going to have to start looking at some kind of revenue source,” he said.
Nelson and Murphy echoed Whitney’s statements on the potential reduction of sales tax revenue coming into the city. Nelson said the city needed savings for unexpected expenses.
“If the roof at city hall comes down on us or the sports center … we need to have money there for something,” he said. In addition, he said, city residents enjoy a low property tax rate that could be affected if they expected to keep the same level of services while also cutting revenues for the city.
Murphy said reserve funds were also meant to insulate the city from unplanned economic hardships like the anticipated drop in state financial support for municipalities.
“What if next year no tourists come into town and the fish go away?” she said. “If that happened next year and we didn’t have that big influx of people, we’ve got to have reserves to take care of that because you’d expect that it would be a one-time-only event and that you’d see a return the next year.”
As the state struggles with a 2015 budget deficit that is expected to top $3 billion, Soldotna administration has warned repeatedly that once liberal capital projects spending would likely be reduced if not cut off completely in coming years.
Asked to prioritize capital project spending, each of the candidates for Soldotna’s city council said they wanted to see current infrastructure maintained and a reduction in the number of new projects in the city.
Sturman said his top capital project priorities are the extending Fireweed Street from downtown to the Sterling Highway, and maintaining the city’s existing roads.
“We need to do a better job taking care of our blacktop streets,” he said. “We have (so much) money in asphalt and look at all of the holes in town.”
Whitney said the city will have to consider upgrades to its water and sewer treatment plants soon, but other large scale projects like the sports center might have to be delayed.
“The sports center is a project or area that people would like to see expanded, but there again that’s going to be a very expensive one and may have slipped down on the list, he said.
As the city considers its role in leading the Kenai Peninsula through the newly loosened restrictions on marijuana, council candidates sought to clarify their positions on what should happen inside of city limits.
Sturman, who said he had never ingested the substance, is the only candidate who fully supports a marijuana industry within city limits.
“The worst I ever did was drink too hard when I was young and I’m not proud of that,” he said. “I’ve seen a plant, I’ve seen the stuff.”
But while he did not support the state legalizing marijuana, he is unwilling to stop a voter initiative. Sturman said he did not like the idea of the city limiting the number of marijuana-related businesses that could operate in town, though he said he could understand restricting geographic location to avoid schools or churches.
“Do we tell people how many gas stations can be in town? How about restaurants? Do we tell people how many of them can sell cigarettes?,” Sturman said. “No. We’re not supposed to do that. I have never been (a fan) of restricting business. (I believe in) free enterprise.”
When asked if he had ever used marijuana, Whitney said he had been exposed to the drug often.
“I have probably thrown away more marijuana than most people have seen in their lifetimes,” he said. “One of the grows I found was in a swimming pool. They drained the swimming pool and started the little plants in the shallow end and the big plants in the deep end. Beautiful grow, that one.”
Whitney said he didn’t know if the city had a large enough area to support a growing, manufacturing or testing facility. But, he said, the city is considering retail sales.
“The residents of Soldotna did not support (the statewide) initiative and I’d still like to hear from people in the city who voted on that,” he said.
Murphy was the sole candidate for council who said she had smoked marijuana in the past. She is also the only one who said she believes the city should not allow any commercial industry immediately.
“We don’t know how it’s going to play out,” she said. “We don’t know what the pitfalls are going to be. People who see this as a big revenue generator, I don’t see that at all. We’re going to add regulation … you don’t know what the real cost of regulating, extra police presence or whatever (is going to be).”
Murphy said she was not opposed to decriminalizing drugs in general and did not oppose people being able to smoke marijuana.
“I think we may have lost the war on drugs a long time ago and I am very much opposed to incarcerating someone for a nonviolent drug offense. I think that’s crazy,” she said. “But, there’s no big hurry to get involved.”
Nelson said marijuana regulation is an issue that sometimes challenges his ability to remain analytical about issues facing the city.
“I’m not comfortable with it,” he said. “I’m leaning towards starting small because I’m not as knowledgeable about it. I still think there are dangers in the product and I think it affects people’s work performance, I think it can affect people’s lifestyles. I still have this predisposed notion and this predisposed opinion of marijuana.”
Nelson said he had never smoked marijuana, but was not averse to people using it. He said he’d like to see the city start slowly and work to change its initial set of regulations once new information about the drug becomes available.
“I support the initiative because it’s law and that’s the way it works,” he said. “Let’s define, as a city, how this is going to look for us.”
Despite their differing political views, each candidate said they appreciated Soldotna for unique moments that they had experienced in the city.
For Murphy, who lived in Seward for decades before moving to Soldotna, Soldotna is the place where she and her husband found a sense of community.
“When we lived in Seward, we didn’t really know our neighbors that well. Everybody was working, so it wasn’t like we were socializing with our immediate neighbors,” she said.
But all of that changed when the couple moved to Soldotna.
“When we built our house in Soldotna, all of our neighbors came by. People look out for each other. If you know your neighbor across the street is out of town, you kind of look out for them as you drive by. If you see a couple of newspapers in the driveway, you go over and hide them.”
For Nelson, who grew up in Soldotna, he found his love of the city evolving as he grew older.
“(My friends and I), the moment we graduated we would book it out of town just as quickly as we could,” he said. “About six to seven years after I graduated high school, after I had moved up to Anchorage and then back, I realized, ‘You know, this isn’t quite as bad as I thought.’ As a young person, you look at it, it’s small and it doesn’t have any opportunities, it doesn’t have any business. But, you realize that the quality of life, the small town feel is not that bad.”
For Whitney, the fishing and what the community has done to support veterans stick out to him when he considers why he stayed.
“It’ll be 10 years this year, this 2016, that we’ve hosted the wounded heroes fishing event. Anywhere from 80-125 military personnel from around the state come down here … it’s a great event, it’s just fantastic that some of our wounded military personnel have been down here fishing.”
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @litmuslens.