Four candidates are vying for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly seat in District 1.
District 1 encompasses a swathe of Soldotna from the Kenai Spur Highway west to the Inlet south of the Kenai River. Kenai Peninsula College biology professor David Wartinbee, borough Capital Projects Manager Robin Davis, former assemblyman Gary Knopp and incumbent Kelly Wolf are all running for the same seat in the district.
Many constituents have expressed continued support for his position in the assembly, Wolf said. He said he has established his place as someone who has contradicted the administration on multiple issues.
“I know I’ve upset the applecart when it comes to the borough mayor and the assembly president, but I’ve done that before,” Wolf said. “I don’t believe that a politician should straddle a picket fence. Pick a side. Hopefully the politician would pick the side of what their constituents are asking us to do.”
Knopp, who previously served as District 1 assemblyman from 2006 through 2012, said he could bring continuity as well as insight to the assembly. Coming back onto the assembly after three years away would allow him to bring “a little of the past, the present and the future” to the borough, he said.
“When you have issues going on in the borough like the LNG plant and the assembly members are rolling through every six years, you lose a lot of that continuity with the changing of the guard,” Knopp said. “I’ve served under three mayors.”
Wartinbee, who previously served as a member of the borough task force on anadromous stream protection, said his primary goal is to maintain quality of life on the peninsula. That may mean adapting to changes as they come, such as those in health care, he said.
“My job as an assemblyperson would be to work with others and maintain that quality of life that we have and expect and want,” Wartinbee said. “And I think that quality of life issue sounds like a mumbo-jumbo type thing, but it’s really that: what makes us want to live here? What makes us want to stay here and raise our families here?”
Davis said his primary purpose in running for office is philanthropy — to best represent the interests of District 1 and the peninsula. He said his interests should be clear because he “has a lot of skin in this game,” meaning that he will have to resign his position with the borough if elected.
“This is not something I’m doing as a lark,” Davis said. “I like this job — I like the people I work with … I like building things, whether it’s a $30,000 project or a $3 million project. But I will gladly resign that position and I will have to resign that position to take this leadership position.”
There are flooding issues across the Kenai Peninsula, but District 1 includes Kalifornsky Beach Road, where a flood disaster was declared in 2013. The solutions to the issue have been contentious since, and the candidates had varying opinions on the best future course of action.
Wolf, who had just taken office when the flood happened, said he has contended with the administration about the handling of the flooding issue and has worked with the K-Beach High Water Task Force to suggest potential solutions. However, he said he has been frustrated by the administration’s treatment of his constituents and circumvention of the Alaska Department of Transportation’s permit terms.
“I don’t think the borough is being straightforward with the assembly, and I have my suspicions, and I think DOT has said that this is what you’re going to do, and these are the terms,” Wolf said. “But what gives the mayor that kind of authority to say, ‘No, we’re not going to do that’?”
Knopp said he thought the borough handled the flooding appropriately at the time, and as there is no assurance that the same level of flood will occur again, it is outside its responsibility and power to address it further. A resident of the area, Knopp said his own property flooded in 2013, but the borough responsibly handled what it could, he said. Other areas had flooding too, and the borough does not have flood powers — it only has authority over roads, so the mitigating actions it took before were appropriate, he said.
“For K-Beach to think that the borough is responsible and should do something is completely out of line,” Knopp said. “It’s definitely a tragedy for people who got flooded and lost a lot, but it’s recoverable. The actions the borough took were completely appropriate if not stretching the limits of their authority in some cases.”
Wartinbee, a biologist, said the issue is “a morass,” and agreed that the borough has done what it can, but said the next step is to facilitate further communication with other bodies for solutions. Some of the issues go back to when the area was platted as buildable when it was historically wetlands, but determining who is to blame does not fix the problem, he said.
“I think the best the borough can do is to put the parties together,” Wartinbee said. “I think that’s the best we can do, to facilitate solutions.”
Davis, a former Air Force officer who grew up in Alabama, said his family also experienced seasonal flooding when he was growing up. It was something they learned to live with, and while K-Beach residents certainly suffered damage, the borough cannot stop the flooding from happening. He said he has two approaches: suggesting a flood control service area for K-Beach and trying to conduct a broader feasibility study.
“But if they don’t want to vote to impose the flood service area, I would support any low-hanging fruit,” Davis said.
One of the measures on the ballot this year is Proposition 1, which would repeal the law allowing non-home rule cities to levy their own sales taxes year round. This targets the grocery tax in the city of Soldotna, which is the only non-home rule city that taxes non-prepared food items year round, at 3 percent.
Wolf said he supported the ordinance because many borough residents, his family included, shop for groceries in Soldotna, not just Soldotna residents. Therefore, all borough residents should be able to vote on it, he said.
“The city of Soldotna has a reserve fund and they are able to keep their property tax lower for the residents of Soldotna,” Wolf said. “Is it just something that just the city of Soldotna residents should be entitled to vote on? I don’t think so. There are a lot of people who it affects.”
Davis also said he would vote in favor of removing the tax because it is a limiting factor for some and there are other sources of revenue for the city of Soldotna, such as a higher mill rate. Cutting too many taxes, however, results in a reduction in services, especially in a budget as tight as the borough’s budget, he said.
“I don’t think this one is that big a deal, but I wouldn’t attack any other tax revenue streams at that point,” Davis said. “If that’s such a big deal to (the city of Soldotna), they can raise their mill rate a little bit. I think it’s a benefit to the people.”
Wartinbee, however, said he opposed it because it put the borough in the position of determining which taxes the cities can levy. Removing the tax would heavily impact Soldotna’s income as well, he said.
“I don’t think the cities should be hamstrung by what the borough has done,” Wartinbee said. “It gave Soldotna, Homer and Seldovia the ability to decide what they want.”
Knopp said he would vote against the proposition because the vote only affects Soldotna, as Homer and Seldovia opted out of levying the sales tax. Having the entire borough weigh in on an issue that only affects Soldotna is not fair, he said. In general, he said he would prefer not to tax residents’ groceries, but this particular proposition only affects Soldotna.
“It’s not up to us to tell the city how to do business,” Knopp said. “What the borough’s proposing to do now, Soldotna is the only city it affects.”
Since marijuana became legal for recreational use in Alaska in February, the state and the borough have been wrestling with how to regulate it. The borough assembly established a Marijuana Task Force to make a suggestion on regulation policy, and business owners in the area have been awaiting a decision.
However, Knopp said it’s too early to be making this kind of call. The state has yet to make a formal decision on how it will regulate the sale and cultivation of marijuana, and so the borough should not step in on it before they have the full picture of the marijuana business in the state.
“It’s one of the least important things on my list,” Knopp said. “There’s no sense of urgency on that. There’s nothing that has to be done. People can smoke it legally, not get thrown in jail, that’s fine. But when you get into the cultivation and retail, one of my big problems is that the state hasn’t adopted their regulations yet.”
Wolf and Davis expressed similar feelings. Until the newly formed state Marijuana Control Board hands down its proposed regulations, the borough should not step into the regulation sphere, Wolf said. He referenced an assembly meeting in February which was heavily attended by members of the public. Wolf introduced an ordinance to ban the cultivation of marijuana in the borough, which many publicly testified against, and was voted down by the assembly.
“Those are things we can look at, but for the borough to get involved, do we oppose (marijuana sale and cultivation)?” Wolf said. “I already asked that question (of borough residents), and I’m not going to touch it.”
Davis said his guideposts for evaluating any regulations suggested by the Marijuana Task Force will be whether they make the existing drug addiction problem worse and whether they protect children and families. The existing rule for alcohol in the borough — for liquor sale establishments to be at least 500 feet from churches and schools — is a good rule to go by, he said.
“I have dealt with drug addicts my whole life, my Air Force career and working in churches,” Davis said. “I’m going to be looking hard at whatever regulations they come up with based on those two principles.”
By contrast, Wartinbee said that while the protection of the population from the downsides of marijuana use is important, the borough should embrace it as a new form of agriculture. The state has a significant responsibility to establish the restrictions and regulations on marijuana, but the borough has to make decisions for itself as well. For example, the borough must determine if it wants to allow marijuana at all, and if it does, how to label it and tax it.
“I think that’s what the borough should be doing, getting ready to think about those things, to kind of guide this new industry,” Wartinbee said. “I don’t think it’s the time for prohibitions. That’s been determined by the ballot proposition.”
Alaska has been on the back end of the health care reform sweeping the Lower 48, but the peninsula is now grappling with how to best approach changes in health care delivery. The borough assembly has debated the merits of transferring the ownership of Central Peninsula Hospital to a partner who would operate the hospital, but that was shot down in 2010. Some have suggested combining the hospital service areas for the central and southern peninsula, but others have questioned the merit of such a move.
The Healthcare Task Force began meeting in August and plans to debate the best methods to reduce the cost of health care while still ensuring access and quality. With an aging population comes increasing demands on health services, and the borough administration, providers and health care executives are working to determine the best path forward.
Combining the hospital districts met a resounding “no” from all the District 1 candidates. Wolf said for those in the central peninsula to be paying the bill for the southern peninsula is unfair.
“However, there are things coming out of this about combining South Pen and Central Pen together, and I am diabolically opposed to that,” Wolf said. “I don’t think it’s fair for us to consider increasing our mill rate to take care of Homer.”
Wartinbee said the other issues being debated by the Healthcare Task Force may have more impact on reducing health care costs than changing the hospital service boundaries. The existing relationship between Central Peninsula Hospital and the borough, where the hospital runs all its internal operations and the borough owns the land, is a good one and should remain that way. Any changes to health care operations on the peninsula should support the quality of life peninsula residents have come to expect, he said.
“You can get cancer treatment here — you don’t have to go to Anchorage to get it done,” Wartinbee said. “You can be right here, you can stay in your home at night. That comes about because the hospital and the community says this is what we need.”
The assembly will have to work closely with the Healthcare Task Force, Knopp said. The representatives on the task force are knowledgeable and informed, and the borough has a lot to consider in reshaping the health care system to be more affordable and level with national standards, he said.
“Health care is a moving target,” Knopp said. “My real concern right now with health care on the peninsula is that it’s fragmented. The doctors need the hospital (and) the hospital needs the doctors. I’d like to see that fixed.”
One of Davis’s key points as an assembly person is to form opinions based on facts, not anecdotal evidence, he said. When the assembly is evaluating the Healthcare Task Force’s recommendations, it will be the same — he expects their recommendations to have rationale, he said.
“I’m not a doctor, but I do understand things,” Davis said. “I know what the people feel like, and I know what their concerns are with health care. When they come forward with those recommendations, they need to be clear to me. It’s got to be clear that it’s going to make the health care system better.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.