From left, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly candidates Joseph Ross, Jesse Bjorkman, Tyson Cox and Brent Johnson speak to members of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce at the Kenai Visitor’s Center in Kenai, Alaska, on Sept. 18, 2019. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

From left, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly candidates Joseph Ross, Jesse Bjorkman, Tyson Cox and Brent Johnson speak to members of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce at the Kenai Visitor’s Center in Kenai, Alaska, on Sept. 18, 2019. (Photo by Brian Mazurek/Peninsula Clarion)

Chambers quiz assembly candidates on issues

Candidates spoke on annexation, taxes and the role of an assembly member.

Candidates for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly spoke to chamber members on Wednesday to answer questions about their positions on the important local issues.

The Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce used their weekly luncheon this Wednesday as a forum for all the candidates running in the upcoming borough assembly elections. This year there are seven people running for three different seats on the assembly, and each was invited to the forum to answer questions about their candidacy.

Four of the candidates attended on Wednesday: Joseph Ross and Jesse Bjorkman running for the District 3 Seat — representing Nikiski; Tyson Cox running for the District 4 seat — representing Soldotna; and Brent Johnson running for the District 7 seat — representing Kasilof and the Central Peninsula.

District 3 candidate John Quick, District 4 candidate Rose Henry and District 7 candidate Holly Odd were invited but did not attend Wednesday’s forum.

The forum was moderated by Merrill Sikorski, who asked the candidates a series of questions submitted by chamber members. Each candidate was given 60 seconds to answer every question as well as 60 seconds for opening and closing remarks.

The questions covered topics from the role of the borough assembly to candidates’ positions on propositions that will be on the ballot Oct. 1.

What do you see as the job of a Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member?

Joseph Ross: You’ve gotta listen to the people. Take their calls, listen to their concerns, and do what you can to represent them to the borough.

Jesse Bjorkman: As an assembly member I plan to be the best advocate I can be for the people of Nikiski, and I’d do that by listening to concerns and grievances that folks have with the borough and providing correct information that folks need in order to be effective in their lives in Nikiski.

Tyson Cox: The first part is you need to be able to listen. Not just listen, but have the availability to be around where people can hear you. The next one would be being able to go in and speak with the administration and be able to speak with other community professionals about topics so they can form plans and move forward with whatever it was you were looking at. The last is being able to work with the other assembly people. It’s vital because you cannot act by yourself, you have to have a group of people to do that.”

Brent Johnson: The job of an assemblyman is the same as Sen. Micciche in regards to the borough. I’d do the legislative work of the borough in a unicameral system, we have just one body. We take bills, bring them to the floor, debate them, then pass them or reject them. So it’s real important to be able to listen to people, real important to be able to speak well, real important to be able to research topics so that you can get information out to support or reject a position. It’s also the job to listen to constituents throughout the borough who say ‘hey, this isn’t working for me, can government help me in some way?’ Often the answer is yes, but it takes a lot of work to meet with those people, listen to what they have to say, and figure out whether this is something that government should be involved in.

What is your understanding of the municipal annexation process?

Johnson: My understanding of it is somewhat limited because that’s never happened in Kasilof or District 7. I do understand that cities grow, and that as they grow they expand their boundaries. It happens in almost every city. It happened in Homer, and I remember very well because my sister lived in an area that got annexed. People that are in areas that get annexed tend to hate it because they like to enjoy the services of the city and they don’t want to pay taxes. The city tax for a property that Judy and I own in Homer is 4.5 mills, so people don’t want to pay that tax but they do want to enjoy those services. It’s always a battle, and there’s actually some services that are very beneficial for people that live in a city. For instance, city sewer and water.

Cox: Being on Soldotna City Council, I actually understand it very well. If you’re just talking about the process, the way it starts is doing engagements with people, having to also fund some third-party engagements that are required as part of the process, then having of course several engagements with the community and then drafting a petition that does go to the boundary commission. The boundary commission, I believe they have up to about a year to look at that, and in that time they will also have hearings where people can come and speak. They actually have the ability to change those boundaries if they feel necessary. They have the ability to take it back to the city and ask for changes, and then at the point where that happens, with the way that the city of Soldotna has done it, it would then go to the legislators at the end of that process and a choice would be made.

Bjorkman: I don’t believe that forced annexation should happen to anyone. I don’t think that folks should be forced to become incorporated as part of a city unless they have a voice in that process and are able to vote on that process. So I am against forced annexation.

Ross: I know when I was on the road service area board for nine years it was a topic that we discussed somewhat because even back then the city of Soldotna was talking about annexing some areas off of K-Beach Road but it wasn’t really anything that would affect me personally, so I didn’t get particularly up to speed on the subject. What I am seeing is, right now, with Soldotna trying to annex there’s an awful lot of people that don’t want to be annexed that apparently are not going to have a vote in that situation, and I don’t think that that’s right. You know, Nikiski is trying to incorporate right now, at least one group is trying to incorporate Nikiski into a city, and we’ve heard that Kenai would like to annex at least parts of Nikiski. They want the tax base, they want the refineries, and I think each area should be able to chart their own course.

What is your stance on Proposition 1? Would you prefer a Kenai Peninsula Borough manager over an elected borough mayor?

Ross: 100% in support of an elected mayor. A borough manager would be at the beck and call of the assembly, so if they don’t like what he’s doing, out he goes and in comes a new guy that’s going to be their lap dog. We need to have a borough mayor like we do now that answers to the people and not the assembly.

Bjorkman: I think having a strong mayor is essential to representing the people of Nikiski and their interests. That way the people of Nikiski have a say in who the mayor is, and they get to go and bring their concerns to the mayor who is responsible to them, the voters. Unfortunately, if you have a manager form of government, that person is only responsible to a majority of the districts in the borough. And as long as they feel comfortable with the majority that they have on the assembly, they’re not going to be represented necessarily by a manager form of government.

Cox: Well, first off, I do believe that this is something that should be on a ballot like this. It is something that people need to decide on. And I think it’s appropriate to do it now. It hasn’t been put out there for a long time, and so it is something that should be looked at. I’ve been asked this question by many people when I’m out visiting and talking with folks, and the way I’ve always brought it to people is, we can hire a manager on their qualifications, or we can choose to elect a mayor on their promises. So that can be good or bad in either direction; I do think there are pluses and minuses to both. There are definitely plenty of boroughs that have a manager already. I believe 12 out of 19 already have a manager form of government. So it is something that works. Whether it works for us is something, we’ll have to decide.

Johnson: Well, this subject first came up, I believe, when Mayor Carey was the mayor. As an example of something that doesn’t go over very well with the assembly and with the voters in the area, Mayor Carey raised the salary of people that were heads of different departments at the same time he was cutting the budget. That really caused some dissension. That happened before I was on the assembly, so that’s when this idea first came up locally that I’m aware of. Then I look at the cities around and I see Paul Ostrander here, as I understand he’s the city manager for Kenai. So that’s not a bad form of government for those folks, it’s been working. I know Peter Micciche had a city manager when he was mayor, a real talented gentleman, so it can work. I’m not necessarily ready to vote in favor of it because I’d like to see some stipulations of just exactly how this is going to work. So that’s my position.

What is your stance on Proposition 2? Do you support an increase to the sales tax cap?

Cox: This is something that’s good for the people to see. I know people have said we’ve seen this before, why is it coming up again? We do need to bring it up every once in a while because things change. What I have to ask is, what is the purpose of it? If the purpose is to create revenue I do not believe it’s the most effective way to do that. I do think it’s probably the only thing that might pass if we’re looking to increase revenue, I just think there might be better ways. Being from the city of Soldotna, we get most of our money from Fred Meyer through our sales (tax), and I can tell you right now, most people don’t spend $500. It’s mostly small sales, those kinds of things, so if you’re looking to increase revenue that’s not the way to do it. The question I would ask is, do we need to increase revenue?

Johnson: I’m in favor of it. When the sales tax cap was first passed it was $500, and it’s been $500 now for over 50 years, and inflation has raised that number up to be something like $2,500. The equivalent of $500 in 1964 is something like $2,500 today. So do we need new revenue? Well, we need to hold the mill rate down. Our mill rate in the Kenai Peninsula Borough is one of the lowest among the larger boroughs in the state, and so if we’re going to hold that mill rate down and we’re going to fund schools, then we’re going to have raise money. That’s one avenue to do it. In addition, the governor is cutting services, and if we’re going to cover those services and continue to fund them, it’s going to take money to do it and this is one way to do it without hurting anybody. I buy an outboard (motor) for $10,000 locally here often, and I pay $15 sales tax on it. If I had this tax it would mean $30.

Bjorkman: I’m in favor of increasing the sales tax cap. Unfortunately, two years ago we saw the borough mill rate increase, and it seems like without a sales tax plan or without a revenue plan that’s the only assembly option that there is, to go out and raise the mill rate on working families. That’s not OK with me. I would like to see the tax regime in our borough changed so that we have forecasted out to adjust for peaks and valleys in borough revenue, and not run to working men and women of this borough and raise their property taxes to fix our problems easily. I think we need to redo our tax code in a responsible way so that we have more of a consumption-based tax. We need to make sure that visitors to our community are doing their part to help pay our tax burden.

Ross: It’s like that bad houseguest you keep having to host every summer: it just keeps coming back. Voters have voted this thing down over and over again. But that said, if the borough needs to increase revenue that might be one way of doing it. But right now the borough’s budget is doing OK. If we need to replace state funds then yeah that might be something to look at, but right now I’m against it and if you use what Brent’s talking about, something I just saw is that $500 bucks in 1964 today would be $3,600 or something like that, well using that logic maybe we should have a cap of $3,600 on there. I’m not for that, but if we do need to raise revenues I’d rather see it come that way than more taxes on the homeowners. But right now I’m against it, just because the public has turned it down so many times already.

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