“A problem solver.”
That’s how Aaron Rhoades describes himself. He’s a lifelong Alaskan with experience in gas and municipal government. He’s also Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce’s new chief of staff, effective last week.
He replaces James Baisden, who served as Pierce’s chief of staff until earlier this year, when he announced that he would be stepping down from the role and retiring from the borough.
Pierce and Rhoades discussed the mayor’s policy agenda during an interview with the Clarion on Tuesday at the George A. Navarre Admin Building in Soldotna.
The two have known each other for more than 20 years, going back to when they both worked for Enstar Natural Gas Company, where they said they got along. Rhoades said he and Pierce stayed in touch after Rhoades left Enstar and that he heard about the vacancy through his brother-in-law, who works with Pierce’s wife.
“The rapport that Charlie and I have together makes it a really good team too, because instead of having factions I have a pretty solid opinion of what I think and he’s respected that in previous roles,” Rhoades said.
Rhoades has four kids, including one in high school and one in junior high, who will be relocating to the Kenai Peninsula with him as part of his new role. They’re currently based in North Pole, where Rhoades served as the city clerk and human resources manager.
“There’s still little details that we’re working out, but they’re really excited,” Rhoades said. “We like to fish — we love everything about the Kenai Peninsula.”
In describing the skill set he thinks he will bring to the position of chief of staff, Rhoades cited his experience working in human resources, which he said will help him build relationships with the different municipal bodies the borough works with as part of its operations.
“Working with the other political subdivisions I think is really key because the mayor is only one person, you know, there’s no way to get it all done,” Rhoades said. “Building the relationships with Seward and Homer and Kenai and Soldotna, Sterling, and even some of the smaller communities that don’t really get that opportunity to contribute as much, that’s where that trust and relationships come into play.”
Rhoades described himself as “no frills” and “down to earth.”
“I’m a problem solver,” Rhoades said. “I try to look at a problem and figure out how we can get the Palestinians and the Israelis to sit down and eat dinner together and not hate, or at least, figure out how to work things forward in a positive way.”
Pierce said that in the coming year, the focus of his administration will be on the fiscal year 2023 budget, maintenance of borough facilities, workplace safety and a better organization of the borough’s fire departments and service areas.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly approved the borough’s fiscal year 22 budget unanimously last month. Fiscal year 22 begins on July 1, 2021, and ends on June 30, 2022. Pierce said Tuesday, however, that budget work happens eight to nine months out of the year and that they’re already looking ahead to FY23. In preparing to craft the borough’s FY23 budget, Pierce said they’ll be working to determine what lingering affects the COVID-19 pandemic may have.
“We’ll start looking at how our revenue shaped up at the end … and start forecasting, doing some analytical work with our finance director, looking at 23 and seeing how that will impact our ability to meet some of the desired things that we wanted to do,” Pierce said.
Of concern to the borough throughout the FY22 budget process was a loss in sales tax revenue due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The borough, like other municipalities, is awaiting another round of federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act, which Pres. Joe Biden signed into law earlier this year.
Pierce said Tuesday that the borough is expecting to receive about $10 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds, which they’re considering to use for revenue recovery and for work on leachate infrastructure at the Central Peninsula Landfill.
“What we’re earmarking right now is about a six and four split: $4 million going back to revenue replacement and $6 million going to cover two phases … on this leachate issue,” Pierce said.
Work has been underway at the Central Peninsula Landfill to repair the leachate tank there, and Pierce said Tuesday it is also the borough’s goal to expand some of the existing leachate infrastructure there.
Leachate comes from water that percolates through landfills and may contain toxic chemicals that modern landfills are designed to prevent from contaminating groundwater or surface water, according to Cornell University’s Waste Management Institute. The borough’s tank collects, treats and delivers water and wastewater.
Pierce said that service used to be provided by the cities of Kenai and Soldotna, but that the water was deemed too toxic to mix in with the liquids being treated at the cities’ facilities.
“The water was dirty, it was too toxic,” Pierce said. “The chemical components in it did not mix well with the two tanks and the processes that they were trying to do over there.”
The maintenance of borough facilities, including a school in Kachemak Selo, is also on Pierce’s list of priorities.
Efforts to build new school facilities in Kachemak Selo have been underway for years. The school, which had 31 students enrolled on May 19 according to district data, currently operates out of three separate buildings, which the district says are in disrepair and out of code compliance. KPBSD Planning and Operations Director Kevin Lyon has said previously that, for example, people are not supposed to be inside of the school buildings when there is snow on the roofs, one of which is bowing inward.
Pierce has repeatedly said that the borough needs to build a school in Kachemak Selo, but that he does not believe $15 million is needed for the project. KPBSD has requested $5.39 million from the borough for the project, which reflects a 35% local match the borough would need to provide in order to receive $10,010,000 from the state for the project.
Efforts to fund the project as a standalone bond item failed after being defeated by voters. The school district has since packaged the K-Selo project with a list of other maintenance projects at schools around the borough, which would give more people a stake in the bond.
Pierce said, though, that not all of the projects need to go to bond.
“They haven’t proven to me that there’s any emergencies out there that we can’t take care of ourselves,” Pierce said, adding that he sees the bonding idea mostly about securing the $5 million match for K-Selo.
Pierce and former KPBSD Superintendent John O’Brien sent a joint letter to Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, earlier this year in which they asked the state to move the $10 million previously awarded to the project from the Alaska Department of Education and Early Development to the Department of Community, Commerce and Economic Development.
Doing so would eliminate the local match requirement. Pierce said Tuesday that Micciche attempted to move the funds during the Alaska Legislature’s regular session, but that there wasn’t a lot of support for the move and that negotiations are ongoing.
In the meantime, Pierce said he’s committed to seeing the project through.
“It’s on my list of, ‘Finish it before I leave,’” Pierce said.
All of those issues are in addition to Pierce’s goals of streamlining communication between his office and the borough’s fire stations and service areas and promoting a culture of workplace safety.
Ultimately, Pierce said that he makes decisions through a group of people and that he and Rhoades will be focused on “keep[ing] the ship between the navigational buoys.”
“I like the results we’ve produced,” Pierce said of his administration. “I think the residents of the borough are happy and satisfied with the work performance of this mayor.”
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at email@example.com.