Navarre gives overview of tenure

Borough Mayor Mike Navarre thought he would be done being mayor by now, after the Oct. 3 election. Instead, he’s got a few more weeks to go.

Navarre will leave the office he’s occupied for the last six years after Kenai Peninsula Borough voters choose their new mayor in a runoff election Oct. 24, when candidates Charlie Pierce and Linda Hutchings will compete for the seat.

He told the attendees at a joint Kenai and Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon Wednesday that he’d originally planned his speech for that day as a sort of farewell tour, but with the results of the runoff still pending, he’s still got the reins of the borough at present. And though the speech was largely an overview of the borough’s position and appreciation for his supporters, he still littered it with political commentary on everything from broad-based taxes to President Donald Trump’s public criticism habits.

After the winner of the runoff is sworn in, he says he doesn’t have plans to run for public office again in the immediate future, but said he plans to stay involved in helping direct the state out of its current fiscal crisis.

It’s the second time he’s left the office, the first being at the end of his three-year term from 1996–1999. He ran for the office again in 2011, in large part because of his concerns about the rising costs of health care. That’s something his administration has tried twice to address in large terms with borough-sponsored task forces on health care and through management of the borough’s two hospitals.

“We’ve accomplished some of the things that I wanted to do,” he said. “…I’m confident that the way that we’ve gone about (expanding hospital services), we are well positioned to be able to have the services here as a result of building some of the infrastructure, but make no mistake, there are changes coming and that have to come in health care.”

The Healthcare Task Force that met between 2015–2016 resulted in concrete changes: Two direct recommendations from that group, a hospital-owned substance detox center and an emergency service area more consistently covering the highways on the eastern peninsula, came to fruition this year.

He’s also repeatedly spoken about concerns for the borough amid the state’s fiscal crisis, which means more costs previously borne by the state get shifted to the borough. His proposals have been shot down three times this year on tax increases, meant to shore up the borough’s revenue amid increased demands for education funding, increasing costs of employee health care and declining state contributions and lower sales tax revenues. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly refused a mill rate increase during the budget process and killed an ordinance that would have asked voters to approve a bed tax, opting instead to ask about increasing the cap on taxable sales, which voters rejected Oct. 3.

The sales tax cap increase was backup plan, and he said at the luncheon that he was disappointed it didn’t pass but was “confident” the next assembly and mayor’s administration would handle the revenue problem.

He also said he was disappointed in the failure of Proposition 2, which would have allowed the borough to issue up to $5 million in bonds to pay for repairs to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in the George A. Navarre Borough Administration Building. The boilers in the building date back to 1971 and have been patched over time but never replaced, leading to inefficiencies in the building and lots of cold patches.

“This morning, in my office, while it wasn’t particularly a cold day, my office was freezing,” he said. “When I came over here … and I was shaking people’s hands, they said, ‘Oh, your hands are cold.’ We don’t have that issue fixed yet.”

In advocating for the proposition, Navarre mentioned multiple times that in addition to the energy savings and the danger of the current system failing, it needed to be repaired for the comfort of the employees in the building. Many of them use space heaters throughout the winter to cover some of the areas where the heating is inadequate, an issue the assembly raised concerns about because of the potential for fires and the energy draw required for space heaters.

Navarre took the opportunity during his speech Wednesday to re-emphasize a point he’s repeatedly answered critics with — public employees are people, too.

“When you hear attacks on public employees, or the fact that health care costs too much or their health care benefits are too much, because we should recognize that those people are just people who live in our community,” he said. “It’s their job. They’re doing it to support their families and their lifestyles, et cetera, and we ought not to spend too much time denigrating people who really are incredible assets on behalf of the borough and its residents, and I see every single day how hard they work and am incredibly impressed.”

Navarre also took time to thank everyone who’d supported his campaigns and efforts over the years, highlighting his working relationships with past Alaska governors and thanking past assemblies for working with him. Though people have been pressuring him to run for another office, he said he didn’t plan to do so in the near future, but that he was planning to work with Gov. Bill Walker on fixing the state’s ongoing fiscal crisis.

“There’s a lot of philosophical differences that go into finding and resolving the fiscal situation that Alaska’s currently faced with, but it’s incumbent upon us to focus on that, to act responsibly and to try to make sure that we address it now, in the best interest of our short-term and our long-term economy, and I intend to try to play a role in that,” he said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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