It’s been a busy few months for the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s new mayor.
Charlie Pierce took over the borough mayor’s office Nov. 5 after a close regular election and a closer still runoff election for the mayor’s office. Strapped immediately with a budgeted deficit of roughly $4 million and a sprawling borough government with more than a dozen departments, the new administration had a lot to learn quickly.
Pierce and his chief of staff, John Quick, spent a few days with outgoing mayor Mike Navarre before Navarre took off to start his new job as the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Community, Commerce and Economic Development. After that, they started in on the budget.
By the first meeting, they had a long list of ideas. Pierce missed his first assembly meeting as mayor because of a family obligation, but Quick presented a list of their activities so far, including a plan to present a balanced budget with no new revenue, a potential fix for the troubled heating system in the George A. Navarre Borough Administration Building for between $35,000 and $40,000, a reduction in staffing in the mayor’s office from the previous administration, a hiring freeze and a travel expense reduction for borough employees.
“We’re going to be working very hard, very diligently to present the assembly with what we think is a balanced budget,” Quick said at the meeting.
It’s still too early to say exactly how things are going under the new administration. Pierce and Quick couldn’t be reached for an interview, but most members of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly are positive about what they’ve seen so far.
“I think things are fine,” said Brent Hibbert, who represents the Kalifornsky area on the assembly. “We’ve only had the one meeting with him. I’m sure there’s going to be some getting used to each other.”
Assembly member Hal Smalley, who represents Kenai, said he’d met informally with Pierce and Quick twice to talk about issues and the processes they’re going through so far. It is a challenge to get up to speed on everything that’s happening at the borough, he said.
“It’s been a busy, running game,” Smalley said. “I think that things are going well with the borough … I think we’re going to have a good term of office. Obviously, we’ll have some areas where we’ll disagree on some things, but I think things are going well.”
Assembly President Wayne Ogle, who represents Nikiski, said he appreciated that Pierce is bringing a fresh look at the budget and the borough operations, though Pierce had the experience of serving as an assembly member for six years from 2006–2012.
“To me, (the transition) is like somebody jingling the keys of a $150 million car and handing it to him,” Ogle said. “It’s daunting for anybody to slide into that spot. The learning curve is relatively steep … I’m kind of thinking that things will really start rolling after the first of he year and we’ll see how things kind of unfold.”
The borough is facing an estimated $4 million shortfall this year, forcing the administration spend out of savings to fund the budget, in part because the assembly declined to increase the mill levy on property taxes to support increased spending in the fiscal year 2018 budget and the voters did not approve a proposed measure to increase the cap on taxable sales from $500 to $1,000 in the Oct. 3 regular election.
Assembly member Paul Fischer of Kasilof said he appreciated that Pierce seemed to be working with the borough employees and departments well so far and that he was optimistic about Pierce’s budget ideas.
“I think he’s doing a good job,” Fischer said. “He intends to come in with a budget with no mill rate increase, and I believe he’s going to do that. I’m impressed … I don’t know if he did it yet but he’s going to meet with all the staff at the borough building, I don’t know if any guy ever did that where (the employees) were all together.”
Ogle said he liked that Pierce was not taking new revenues as a given to balance the budget. The assembly decided to delay a decision on a proposed sales tax on temporary lodging until March, giving Pierce time to work on a budget presentation.
“I thought the delay of the bed tax was a good thing to do,” Ogle said. “I think it gives him an opportunity to get more comfortable and familiar with what are the financial condition of the borough, and then look and see if additional revenues are really necessary.”
Assembly member Kelly Cooper of Homer was a little more dubious about the budget solution. Balancing the budget without additional revenue likely means cuts, Cooper said.
“For us to even continue funding at the same level that we did last year, there’s no way,” she said. “Perhaps the real estate assessments will have come up and sales tax did better than they forecast, but I don’t see how we can have a balanced budget without additional revenue. If they’re saying that we can do a balanced budget without any additional revenue, it’s because of cuts.”
Assembly member Willy Dunne, who represents the outlying areas of the Southern Peninsula, said it was hard to imagine how the mayor will balance the budget without increase revenue.
“I know the mayor has not rehired a couple of positions and he’s currently got some acting department heads, but without seeing a specific budget, I don’t know (where the savings are coming from),” he said. “…I did have a one-on-one conversation with the mayor about some of his ideas, but we’ll see.”
Borough building repairs
One of the hotbutton topics during last year’s budget discussions was the proposed fix for the heating, ventilation and air condition system in the borough administration building in Soldotna. Navarre originally included an appropriation for it in his proposed budget, but the assembly eliminated it, opting instead to ask voters to approve bonds. The voters said no at the Oct. 3 election.
Pierce said at the Dec. 5 Policies and Procedures Committee meeting that the administration is looking at replacing just the boilers in the building, which would solve the heating problem but not the air distribution or other electrical problems in the building. They’re considering replacing just the boilers to prevent a potential heating crash, he said.
The bond package included replacing many of the bulbs in the building with LEDs and refitting the heating system in the building to make it more efficient. Cooper pointed out in the meeting that it has to go out to bid rather than be a straight purchase, and said she wanted it to be clear that this fix would not be the same as the one proposed in the bond package.
“The work that we were trying to get done,” she said. “That wasn’t just heat — that was the whole entire system. That would have included getting things switched to LEDs, heat, the air system, all the things that go with it … It’s important to me that people not think the previous administration wanted to do this for millions and millions of dollars and the new administration came in and said they could do it for $60,000.”
Assembly member Dale Bagley, who represents Soldotna and Ridgeway, said the mayor’s office had been fairly sparse on details about the proposed fix for the heating system so far.
“(The mayor’s idea) fixes part of the heat, I guess, and delivery of heat is still a problem and delivery of cold is still a problem,” he said.
Smalley said he didn’t have many details on Pierce’s plan yet but knew that the system had been an issue for years.
“It’s been sort of piecemealed together,” he said. “Where we go on that system when we look at the entire thing, I just have to wait and see. The information that we’ve received when I was on the assembly in the past was that it was going to be an expensive proposition for the borough.”
Assembly member Norm Blakeley said he thought Pierce is doing a good job so far and appreciated the fresh approach to borough government.
“It sounds like he’s trying to look at things differently,” he said. “…He’s looking at things other than the context unlike people who have been in politics. If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always be what you’ve always been.”