Borough assembly candidates talk revenues, cuts

With less than three weeks left to go until the municipal regular election, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly candidates made their pitch Wednesday about the borough’s future.

Three seats on the borough assembly are on the Oct. 4 general election ballot — District 3, which covers Nikiski, District 4, which covers Soldotna and the Mackey Lake and Ridgeway areas, and District 7, which stretches between Kasilof and Ninilchik. While the incumbents for Districts 3 and 4 are running unopposed, three hopefuls are vying for the District 7 seat.

Bill Holt and Paul Fischer, both of Kasilof, and Debbie Cary of Ninilchik have all thrown their hats into the ring for the seat that will be left vacant by incumbent Brent Johnson, who has reached the two-term limit on the assembly. Fischer most recently served on the assembly from 1997 to 2010 and in the Alaska Legislature from 1982 to 1992, and Holt currently serves on the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District’s Board of Education. Cary, who co-owns the Inlet View Lodge in Ninilchik and volunteers in the public school system, is new to politics.

The three attended a forum at the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce joint luncheon along with District 3 incumbent Wayne Ogle and District 4 incumbent Dale Bagley. Most of the conversation centered on ways to balance the borough’s budget in the future and where opportunities and challenges lay.

Cary said she would like the borough to continue considering ways to lower the cost of health care and saw opportunity for revenue in the fledgling marijuana industry. She said she does not support new taxes at this time but would consider them in the future rather than cutting into the most important services.

“We have to cut in other areas, as long as it’s not an essential service, and I think there’s quite a few essential services within our district,” she said.

Bagley, who has also served on Soldotna City Council and as borough mayor between 1999 and 2005, said he saw opportunity in the continued development of oil and gas on the peninsula. Holt agreed with the potential for oil and gas and added tourism and commercial fishing. Recreational opportunities can attract more visitors and residents, he said.

All five candidates agreed the biggest challenge would be in dealing with declining state revenue in the next five to 10 years. However, they had varying approaches to how the borough should handle the balance between raising taxes and cutting services.

Ogle said he would like to see the borough trim more of its expenditures for assembly members’ health care benefits and funding for nondepartmentals and take a comprehensive look at a reasonable level of service.

“(We should be) looking at borough services to see what services we really want to have, and are they being efficiently delivered?” he said. “I don’t think we’ve had that discussion yet, and we need to do that before we start looking at revenue sources, which really means taxes.”

Both Holt and Cary emphasized the need to continue to fund education sufficiently. Funding for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District currently constitutes approximately two-thirds of the borough’s total budget, and the growing cost of health care will create an additional financial burden. Holt, who worked as Community School Coordinator at the former Skyview High School and has served on the school board for eight years, said the district will need to think creatively about how to reduce costs while not negatively impacting the quality of education. Holt said the borough has to look at new revenues because the budget has already cut “pretty tight” on services.

“I think that because the school district is the largest part of the borough’s budget, I think we really have to think of innovative ways to provide the same services to our students,” Holt said. “I think they need to come first and we have to figure out innovative ways to do that.”

All five candidates said they were in favor of the passage of Ballot Proposition 3 in the Oct. 4 election, which would raise the maximum amount of a transaction subject to sales tax in the borough from $500 to $1,000. Cary said she supported it because raising the cap would put off a possible increase in the base sales tax rate.

“I think this is a way that doesn’t affect lower income families personally,” she said. “I see it as a win situation.”

The candidates were more divided on Ballot Proposition 4, which asks voters whether the borough should phase out the optional portion of its senior property tax exemption, reducing the total exemption available to $200,000 by 2024. No current senior receiving the benefit would lose it, but those in the future will not have as much available. Fischer said he was concerned the state government might decide to reduce its mandatory $150,000 exemption in the future.

“Down the road, somebody’s going to say, ‘Wait a minute, we’re a municipality. We don’t think the state should mandate that we have that $150,000 exemption,’” Fischer said. “They’re going to go to the state and say, ‘Make it local option.’”

Bagley said the change might actually come with some benefits, such as the formation of service areas where there might not have been enough revenue before, such as Cooper Landing.

“I think this is something that might provide revenue for places like Cooper Landing to do a fire service area if they wanted to,” he said.

Voters in Districts 3, 4 and 7 can cast their ballots for their assembly candidates on the Oct. 4 ballot in the municipal election. Absentee ballots became available Monday, either by mail or in person at the Kenai Peninsula Borough building in Soldotna, the Borough Annex Building in Homer or the City Clerk’s office in all the cities of the peninsula except Soldotna.

 

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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