Despite concerns about the state’s fiscal situation, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday approved the addition of a new special assistant to the mayor, a job that will focus attention to see the AK LNG project come to fruition.
The assembly voted 6 to 3 to approve a new special assistant to the mayor’s office to focus on oil, gas and mining issues. Assembly members Wayne Ogle, Kelly Wolf and Stan Welles voted no.
The three dissenting voters expressed their concern of spending for a position they questioned could have been delegated amongst present personnel.
The position earns an annual salary of $98,171, including benefits and travel expenses, is expected to cost $161,800. The job, which Mayor Mike Navarre said he hopes to fill by the start of February, would be prorated to cost $67,500 for this fiscal year budget cycle, which ends on June 30.
Navarre said the jobholder’s primary responsibilities would be to evaluate policies and legislation related to the Nikiski AK LNG gasline project. He said with the Legislature back in session, they are expected to discuss the tax structure and change the payment in lieu of taxes, which would have significant consequences to the borough.
“If the LNG facility is built to its magnitude, it would more than quadruple the existing tax base for the Kenai Peninsula. The revenues are significant,” Navarre said. “It’s an investment in our future. We would be penny-wise and pound-foolish in terms of protecting future revenues and the ability to address economic impacts for a project this size.”
Assemby member Kelly Cooper said she sees the immediate significance of having someone in Juneau with the borough’s interests in mind to help move the project forward.
Ogle said in his mind Navarre, who is on the LNG advisory committee, is the best candidate suited for the job between his contacts from 12 years in the state Legislature. He said he would’ve liked to see the mayor’s office form a focus group and as the project develops use staff resources to monitor the situation.
“I have enormous respect for the mayor’s capabilities and ability to know what’s going on,” Ogle said. “I don’t feel like we are in a climate to ramp up another high level position in borough government.”
Navarre said with his current responsibilities as mayor he couldn’t spend the entire legislative session at the state capital.
The special assistant would closely monitor and gather intelligence during the session and then inform the mayor when he would need to be in Juneau, he said.
Wolf suggested the job could be contracted out for someone to lobby legislators in Juneau for the borough instead of funding a permanent position. Navarre said he wasn’t opposed to the idea but felt the borough would get “more bang for their buck” than having a temporary consultant.
The assembly heard from two people during public testimony, both opposed to the new position.
Nikiski resident Wenda Kennedy asked if the position was necessary and questioned the “narrow focus” to have someone work solely on the LNG project.
Navarre said the position encompasses overall oil, gas and mining industries but the immediate focus would be on legislation related to the LNG project this year. If for whatever reason the project does not move forward, the assembly has the option during the next budget process to evaluate the necessity of the position, he said.
Kasilof resident George Pierce said he was under the impression that lawmakers would keep the mayor in the loop on pending legislation pertaining to the LNG project.
“Let’s wait until we get some pipe laid,” he said. “We have studied this thing to death. Why hire somebody now when we could be waiting 15 years.”
Navarre said he was happy to see the position be approved because it would serve an important function to the borough and prepare for the future and monitor legislation this year. He said he has talked with a couple people interested and hopes to hire someone in the next couple weeks.
Reach Dan Balmer at firstname.lastname@example.org.