Three candidates will vie to fill the seat on the Kenai Peninsula Borough assembly representing District 7, which includes Kasilof, Clam Gulch, Ninilchik and Happy Valley.
The incumbent, Brent Johnson, will be term-limited out of the seat this fall. Paul Fischer, a former borough assembly member, Bill Holt, a current school board member, and Debbie Cary, a Ninilchik business owner, want to step in to replace him.
Fischer served on the assembly in the early 1980s, in the Legislature from 1982-1992 and again on the assembly from 1994-2010. The Kasilof resident said he is concerned about a number of issues currently before the assembly, including the issue of the invocation, taxes, governance of the hospitals and school funding. One of the biggest challenges is balancing the borough’s budget in the face of the state’s remaining $3.2 billion budget gap. As an assembly member, he said he would work to manage the budget by finding efficiencies and trimming wherever possible, such as on the assembly’s own health care allowance.
“If we show the people these little things we’re going to do, (we show them) we are serious as an assembly, even on a lower level,” he said.
Holt, a Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Board of Education member for the past eight years, works as a commercial fisherman in the summers and manages the Tsalteshi Trail system just outside Soldotna. With a background in education funding, Holt said he finds himself getting more and more interested in borough issues and thinks the school board is a good segue to the borough assembly. The state’s fiscal crunch will play out in a variety of ways in the school district and the borough, and Holt emphasized finding efficiencies and balancing both cuts and new revenue to ensure that Kenai Peninsula residents still receive essential services without large tax increases.
“I think we need to be super frugal, look at places where we can cut and get by without quite the same level of services,” Holt said. “As we go ahead, we’re going to have the need for revenue.”
For Cary, who co-owns the Inlet View Restaurant and Bar in Ninilchik, this will be her first foray into politics. A longtime volunteer teacher at the Ninilchik School, she said education funding is one of her major concerns and the borough should continue to fund education as much as possible while the school district should find efficiencies where it can. To save funds at the borough level, she said she thought the borough could consolidate some positions as people retire and find efficiencies.
“I do think we need to look at the jobs and the job descriptions,” Cary said. “If there’s areas to consolidate, then hopefully through retirement … then some of those jobs can be absorbed within the administration itself. I know that it’s a slow-moving process.”
Kenai Peninsula voters will decide on two taxation measures on the ballot this fall — Proposition 3 asks whether the borough should raise the cap on taxable sales from $500 to $1,000, and Proposition 4 asks whether the borough should reduce its optional portion of the senior property tax exemption over a period of years, dropping it to a total of $200,000 available to seniors after 2024.
Fischer said he supported raising the sales tax cap but opposed reducing the senior property tax exemption. There is no assurance the state will maintain its $150,000 mandatory exemption, so if that is reduced, seniors will be hit hard, he said.
“That’s an area you can cut,” he said. “…Now it’s getting to the point where the state doesn’t have any money.”
Holt said he saw the reduction as reasonable because the population of the peninsula is aging, and as demographics shift, the burden of taxation will increasingly fall on young people.
“It’s really easy to say we need to do this for the seniors, but by doing that, we’re shifting the tax burden to someone else,” he said.
Cary said she recognized the difficulty of the decision, particularly on the senior tax exemption, and was glad it was going to a public vote. She said at a forum for the borough assembly candidates on Sept. 21 that she supported the sales tax cap increase because it would put off the need to increase the base sales tax rate.
The state legalized commercial marijuana through a public vote, setting in motion a whir of activity to regulate and license commercial marijuana ventures. Several Kenai Peninsula residents have jumped on the chance, applying for licenses and setting up their businesses, several of the largest of which are located in District 7, in Kasilof.
A number of municipalities in Alaska have moved to ban commercial marijuana using the state-granted local option, but the Kenai Peninsula Borough has left it legal for now. A ballot proposition to ban commercial marijuana operations in the borough outside the cities has garnered enough signatures to go to a public vote, though whether it will be on its own special election ballot or on the general election ballot in October 2017 remains to be seen.
Fischer said the state voted to legalize it and he did not support a special election for the question.
“I’d say probably let the special election go,” he said.
Holt said he did not support the special election either and thought the businesses had already gone through enough red tape to get started. He said he toured one of the grow facilities and found it interesting and wanted to see where the industry would go in the future.
“If (the initiative) ends up being on another ballot next (October), I think by the time that comes around people will have seen what these folks are doing,” Holt said.
Cary said she did not support spending the estimated $60,000 on a special election for the marijuana question but wanted to see the assembly encourage more research on how marijuana will affect the peninsula’s population, such as the definition of buzzed driving.
“When you think about the THC levels … it can vary from a beer, which is like 12 percent alcohol, to 100 proof,” Cary said. “Then you’ve got your illegal moonshine business that’s going up to 150 proof. How do we ensure that we don’t go over that limit? I don’t have the answers, I don’t know the answers, but I’d like to be able to find the answers.”
The borough is engaged with a Healthcare Task Force addressing the question of how to reduce the cost of health care for Kenai Peninsula residents. Both Central Peninsula Hospital and South Peninsula Hospital, though leased to and operated by nonprofit boards, are owned by the borough, and Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre convened the task force last year to attempt to address ways to either cap or reduce the escalating cost of health care.
Two questions forthcoming to the borough assembly are whether to expand the borough’s powers to include health care and whether to consolidate the two hospitals. Fischer said he would wait for the Healthcare Task Force’s recommendations but would not support a merger between the two hospital service areas at this point.
“They’ve both got debt,” Fischer said. “You’ve got to have a vote, but you can’t have a vote if nobody knows what the debt is going to look like. I have a really hard time voting yes on that.”
Holt said he would not support the consolidation at this time either but still didn’t have all the information on what that would mean. He said he looked forward to getting more information about the hospital situation. During his time on the school board, he said he has had experience coping with the rising cost of health care after the protracted negotiations between the school district and the teachers and education support staff associations — which hinged partially around health care benefits — and would bring that experience to the borough assembly’s discussions.
“I don’t know what the solution is, but I think it’s great that (the borough is) trying to get a handle on it,” he said.
Cary said she did support the consolidation of the service areas. Earlier this year, the borough assembly considered a controversial ordinance that would have moved the common boundary between the two service areas south, moving a number of people in the Ninilchik area into the Central Kenai Peninsula Hospital Service Area, which has a much lower mill rate than the South Kenai Peninsula Hospital Service Area. Although the ordinance ultimately failed, Cary said uniting the service areas would make the hospitals work together on issues such as sharing medical records and even out the tax rate across the peninsula.
“It’s a way of being equal, and we’re all equal. It’s not only the fact that we’re paying the mill rates. It’s the way that we’re dispersing the (medical) information … just because you live in one area doesn’t mean that that’s the hospital you’re going to end up going to.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.