Almost every member of the Kenai City Council during their Wednesday meeting responded to public comments made by council member Teea Winger about the city’s shop local program.
Winger’s comments, which were made in a seven-minute Facebook video and during an interview on KSRM’s “Sound Off” program, specifically criticized the council for voting in opposition to an alternative shop local program that would have allocated $1 million to it instead of the initially proposed $115,000.
During their Jan. 20 meeting, which lasted for more than six hours, the council voted to roughly triple the amount of money for the program to $350,000. Called “Shop Here All Year in Kenai,” the program aims to incentivize shopping at Kenai businesses by awarding vouchers to shoppers who spend money on qualifying items at participating businesses. Shoppers who spend $100 on discretionary items will qualify for $50 in coupons, while shoppers who spend $200 will qualify for a $100 voucher.
The day after the council’s Jan. 20 meeting, Winger posted a video on Facebook in which she accused other council members of not supporting local businesses, said Kenai is known as “a city where businesses come to die,” and called the $350,000 amount given to small business “scraps.”
Winger also claimed that of the $5 million the city initially allocated for small businesses and nonprofits, businesses ultimately only got $2.5 million, which she said was “completely unacceptable.”
Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander clarified Thursday that, in total, the City of Kenai received about $10.3 million in CARES Act funds, which the city divided into different “buckets.” Into the “small business/nonprofit” bucket, Ostrander said, they initially allocated about $3 million. From the Kenai Peninsula Borough, the city received an additional $2 million for small businesses and nonprofits, under the condition that businesses located in Kenai City Limits not receive more in direct assistance or grants than businesses located outside of the city limits, or about $35,000. The city’s shop local program, Ostrander said, is not considered a grant program.
In the “small business” bucket, Ostrander said, there was about $1.2 million left over as the initial CARES Act spending deadline of Dec. 30 approached. In late December, Congress announced an extension of the CARES Act deadline to the end of 2021.
Before the original Dec. 30 deadline, the city allocated those funds to payroll costs, freeing up money in the city’s general fund that they were planning to spend on those payroll costs. That money in the general fund is where the funds for the shop local program came from.
During Wednesday’s city council meeting, Kenai Mayor Brian Gabriel used a portion of his “Mayor’s Report” to directly respond to the comments Winger made on Facebook and on KSRM. Though Gabriel and other council members did not call Winger by name, Winger was the only council member to propose a $1 million substitute ordinance to the shop local program during the council’s Jan. 20 meeting, to post a video about the program on Facebook and to speak about the program on KSRM’s “Sound Off.”
Specifically, Gabriel clarified seven “inaccuracies” he said Winger reported during the program, including for how long the program ran, which businesses were eligible to participate and what amendments were successfully added to the final legislation. The Facebook video, Gabriel said, “was in poor taste.”
“What I don’t appreciate is being disparaged and perceived in a manner that’s not true, such as I don’t care about small business,” Gabriel said. “That’s not been true and it’s never been true.”
During closing comments, five council members also directly responded to Winger’s comments.
Vice Mayor Bob Molloy said he “felt compelled to respond.”
“Part of the whole discussion was that the City of Kenai is dying and that businesses come to Kenai to die and I have to tell you I don’t see Kenai dying,” Molloy said. “I see a resilient business community in Kenai that is crucial to Kenai’s arc of growth that we have, that is continuing despite the impacts of the pandemic.”
Council member Henry Knackstedt, whom Winger specifically named in the Facebook video, said he thought the final dollar amount of $350,000 was “a very good compromise,” but that he didn’t see a public response that celebrated the legislation as a compromise.
“What I did see was a Facebook rant that literally scared small children … I was called out a number of times and I didn’t appreciate that one bit, and also this body as a whole, and I thought it was detrimental to our city and our city moving forward,” Knackstedt said. “It quite angers me that that would actually happen.”
“I, too, was greatly shocked and disappointed with the disparaging remarks about fellow council members who did not support a council member’s substitute,” said council member Glenese Pettey.
During the Wednesday night council meeting, Winger said that she would not put government wants ahead of peoples’ wants and thanked the council for their “change of heart” regarding financial relief for residents looking to buy groceries. At their next meeting, the council will consider legislation that would give vouchers to residents who self-certify that they were negatively impacted by COVID-19 to spend at local grocery retailers.
“I am here to represent we the people, not our government agenda, as much as I appreciate it,” Winger said. “I will always put we the people ahead of our government wants and needs.”
As of Thursday, the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center had announced that 19 businesses were participating in Kenai’s shop local program, which went live on Monday and will run through the end of April, including Red Line Sports, Kenai River Coffee, Maggie’s General Store and Kenai Kombucha.
Discretionary purchases that qualify for the program include money spent on things like clothing, furniture, sporting goods and books as well as at restaurants, cafes, bars and distilleries, among others. Non-discretionary purchases that do not qualify for the program include money spent on things like groceries, fuel, utilities, rent or prescriptions, among others.
Shoppers can submit up to 10 receipts in person at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center or online. Participating businesses will issue vouchers from Feb. 1 to April 1 and shoppers will have to spend their vouchers before April 30.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.