Most of the conversation among the candidates for Kenai Peninsul Borough Assembly and borough mayor has been about the budget so far, but a forum Wednesday night pivoted to focus more on social issues.
The League of Women Voters of the Central Kenai Peninsula, the local chapter of a national issue-based political action organization, hosted nine of the candidates for seats on the borough assembly and for the borough mayor’s office. Two of the seats on the assembly, District 6 and District 8, are uncontested, so those candidates sat out of the debate, but the others put up a vigorous discussion.
The league’s first question asked or specific recommendations about budget cuts and taxation, but after that, they departed and focused on issues including homelessness, public transportation and alternative energy.
With the assembly chambers packed to standing room only, the three candidates for borough mayor — Charlie Pierce of Sterling and Linda Hutchings and Dale Bagley, both of Soldotna — joined the discussion with six assembly candidates: Brent Hibbert and Dan Castimore in District 1, Duane Bannock and Hal Smalley in District 2 and Leslie Morton and Norm Blakeley in District 5.
One of the first questions that arose was about the future for recycling and alternative energy on the peninsula. Central Peninsula Landfill handles the waste for 98 percent of the borough’s population and takes in some items for recycling, which are then shipped to the Lower 48 to be reused. Some are used here — some glass is crushed and used in road pavement or in the impermeable layers of the landfill — but all the shipping expenses add up, Hutchings said. She said she was open to ideas on both alternative energy and
“(The borough) is a lot of territory to cover when you’re talking about recycling,” she said. “I recycle, but how much do other people recycle?”
Pierce said he wanted to look at a long-term plan for the landfill because burying trash can only work for so long. Voters approved an approximately $10 million bond package last year to design and build two new cells at the landfill as well, he added.
“What I would like to see this borough do is be more futuristic about the decisions that we make,” he said. “We always say we can’t afford it, but I would ask you to look forward five years, 10 years, 20 years down the road, and we should be putting some plans together to plan for the future so we can put some capital projections together so we can work toward it as a community.”
Bagley said he supported the recycling efforts at the landfill. One of his priorities as mayor, he said, would be to update the fluorescent lightbulbs in the borough buildings and school facilities for LED lightbulbs, which are more energy efficient, with the potential of installing motion sensors so they are not on 24/7.
Though all three said they supported hydroelectricity projects like the Bradley Lake Hydroelectric Plant, a Homer Electric Association-managed facility on the south side of Kachemak Bay. Solar and wind power technology is hard to manage in Alaska for consistency — storing sufficient power when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing has proven a challenge. However, all three said they were interested in the potential for tidal power in Cook Inlet.
Another question dealt with homelessness on the Kenai Peninsula, which has drawn increasing public attention in the last few years. All three candidates said they knew it was a major problem but weren’t sure what the borough could do without community and private sector support. Hutchings pointed out that Central Peninsula Hospital had recently opened a medical detox facility, largely in response to the ongoing opioid epidemic. Bagley said because the Kenai Peninsula Borough is a second-class borough, it has limited powers and can only do so much.
“I definitely prefer CARTS over trying to do an established route, but if there’s something that works, I’m willing to look at it,” he said.
Public transportation, tangentially related to homelessness, also arose. None of the mayoral candidates said they thought it was fiscally responsible for the borough to develop a Kenai-Soldotna bus route without private sector or grant support, and pointed out that the Central Area Rural Transit System provides public transportation currently with 24 hours’ notice.
Castimore, the information technology manager for the city of Kenai and a current Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education member, said he thinks the peninsula is headed in a good direction on alternative energy and wasn’t sure what the assembly’s role would be to incentivize it or other environmentally friendly projects. Hibbert likewise said he supported hydroelectric projects but that they have to be done responsibly to protect fish habitat.
On homelessness, Castimore said he wasn’t sure about specific solutions but was aware of the problem in the community. Hibbert attributed some of the homelessness to “choices being made” and said with the opening of the detox facility and the annual Project Homeless Connect event, the homeless in the community have some resources available now.
“Hopefully people will go in there and us that service there and get detoxed and make better life choices so they’re not homeless,” he said. “…It’s a big issue, and I don’t think it’s going to go away anytime soon, till we get a handle on the drug epidemic, too.”
Public transportation is a close-to-home issue for Hibbert, who has owned Alaska Cab since 1991 and drove a taxi himself before that. On the question of a public transportation bus route between Kenai and Soldotna, he said there are likely to be unexpected expenses and snags, such as how someone gets from the end of Strawberry Road to the highway and bus shelters to protect people from the rain. Castimore said he would support a public transportation project if it helped reduce some of the duplicate transportation services organizations are conducting now.
“If we can work together and try to consolidate rather than having 16 different agencies providing transportation, it will be more affordable, it will be better, and it will be easier, and I’d be more than happy to talk about something like that,” Castimore said.
Bannock and Smalley agreed that homelessness has to largely come from the community rather than being directed by the borough, though both said they have seen a lot of community involvement in finding solutions. They differed on the public transportation question, with Bannock saying the borough shouldn’t be pursuing public transit dollars, while Smalley said he thought the issues with CARTS could be resolved to allow it to continue providing public transit options.
“It has some quirks with it but it does work,” he said. “To establish a different transit program I think is going to require the cities working with the borough and probably working with our state representatives to find a solution that is acceptable.”
They also shared some opinions about the pursuit of alternative energy, with Smalley saying he saw many private windmills on properties across the peninsula and that he thought people were moving in that direction, while Bannock said he loved the idea of tidal power in the future. However, he said in a question about economic diversification he believes the price of oil will rebound and that he is focused on cutting spending at the borough level.
“Our economy is an oil-based economy and it will come back,” he said. “This is the time to cut spending.”
Morton and Blakeley both said they supported alternative energy projects, with Blakeley specifying the value of hydroelectricity and Morton saying she was open to a variety of options, including Central Peninsula Landfill’s ongoing landfill gas collection project. Both also said they supported community efforts to deal with homelessness, with Morton singling out the efforts of the Kenai Peninsula Re-Entry Coalition, a community group focused on helping former prison inmates adjust to life after prison, and ongoing affordable housing initiatives.
On the public transportation question, Blakeley said he worried the cost of a borough-involved system would grow out of control.
“It seems like to me that CARTS is in existence, and like a lot of things that happen with government, we start out small and somebody figures out a way to make it grow, and pretty soon it’s grown beyond the expectations of anybody, then we’re going to have to tax somebody to keep up with it and keep it going,” he said.
Morton said she supported the Kenaitze Indian Tribe’s ongoing effort to establish a public transit system, and that while she personally had used CARTS at one time, it was not the most efficient system. She said she’d be willing to consider other funding options than a borough-funded option.
“Witout public transportation or some access to transportation, that homeless problem probably isn’t going to go away, because those folks need to get to work,” she said.