Downtown Seward, Alaska, is seen on Saturday, July 24, 2021. (Camille Botello / Peninsula Clarion)

Downtown Seward, Alaska, is seen on Saturday, July 24, 2021. (Camille Botello / Peninsula Clarion)

Seward candidates talk infrastructure, housing, school funding

Election 2021

School funding, expanded housing opportunities and city infrastructure were at the forefront during a forum for Seward electoral candidates on Monday. Four city council and two Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly candidates participated in the forum, which was streamed live on the city’s YouTube channel.

Assembly

Incumbent Kenn Carpenter is running against Cindy Ecklund for the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly’s District 6 seat, which covers the eastern peninsula. Carpenter has served on the assembly since 2017 and works for the Alaska Vocational Technical Center in Seward. Ecklund is a former Kenai Peninsula Borough School District teacher and currently serves on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission, as well as on the Seward Planning and Zoning Commission.

Among the issues Ecklund said are important to her are child care access in Seward, workforce shortages and school funding. Carpenter similarly highlighted school and city infrastructure, in addition to taxes, which he said he has kept down during his time on the assembly.

The two candidates clashed over how to fund KPBSD schools. Ecklund said the school district should be fully funded by the Kenai Peninsula Borough, while Carpenter said most of the school’s budget is used for employee payroll and that other projects are funded in a different way.

The school district requested to be fully funded by the borough during the most recent budget cycle at $53 million, while Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Charlie Pierce proposed $43 million as a minimum amount. The two entities reached a compromise of $48 million, though the assembly voted against setting that figure as a funding floor, which the borough later approved.

“Yes, schools are important,” Carpenter said. “That’s done with grants and in kind money, it’s not done with the school budget. The school budget is basically 83% on payroll and medical and stuff for the teachers.”

Ecklund pushed back and said that school funding over the last few years has not kept up with what is needed to run the schools and to pay teachers and staff accordingly. It amounts to a decrease in funding over the years, she said, because it has not kept up with inflation.

“We really need to look at the school budget as an investment in our future,” Ecklund said.

Carpenter said fixing Seward’s schools hinges on good communication between the borough and KPBSD administration. That communication, he said, was not good under the previous superintendent, who he said was “difficult to get ahold of,” but that current Superintendent Clayton Holland is easier to work with.

Ecklund reiterated that she would prioritize school funding in her closing remarks.

“I’d really like to work to improve the funding for the schools in any way we can (and) think outside the box,” Ecklund said. “It shouldn’t be an issue to staff with a living wage, and to maintain the buildings and to maintain the offerings for the students.”

Ultimately, Carpenter said he thinks he has acted on the wishes of Seward residents during his time on the assembly.

“I just think that I’ve done what people have asked,” Carpenter said in his closing remarks. “I kept the mill rate down. I’ve kept the taxes down. I voted against any tax increase … I’ve done exactly what you wanted me to do.”

City Council

Four candidates are vying for two seats on the Seward City Council, all of whom participated in Monday night’s forum. John Osenga currently serves on the council and is running for reelection. Leighton Radner is a libertarian who wants to see more government decisions made by private citizens. Randy Wells is a small business owner and currently serves on the Seward Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors. Mike Calhoon is a U.S. Army veteran with previous experience on the Seward City Council, the Seward Planning and Zoning Commission and the Seward Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors.

Priorities shared by all candidates include city infrastructure — particularly electric — year-round employment opportunities and expanded housing opportunities, though they sometimes disagreed about the best way to address them. Radner, for example, attributed the city’s housing problems to city zoning codes, while Calhoon spoke to the lack of affordability of starter homes for young families.

“It’s tough right now in Seward, if you’re a young family trying to get a starter home,” Calhoon said.

Osenga spoke about the city’s need to spend more time addressing city utilities generally, as opposed to only when problems arise. Waiting until something becomes an emergency — like the city’s electric services — costs more money than proactively addressing it, he said.

“We have to just be able to make sure that we are maintaining and taking care of all of our infrastructure, not just the electrical department,” Osenga said. “That’d be water and sewer also.”

Multiple candidates also spoke to the need for reliable, high-speed internet in the city, with Wells speaking to the benefit it would provide for development.

“I truly believe that high-speed internet to our community that’s affordable will not only improve opportunity for more businesses, which would then obviously bring in more sales tax revenue, but it would be a more dependable power and internet service,” Wells said.

Candidates generally agreed that diversifying Seward’s economy by introducing more year-round businesses would be a good thing for the city, with most candidates looking toward the maritime industry as one area for expansion. Radner, who spoke generally throughout the forum about the need for city services to be taken up by city residents, said the best way to foster growth is to have the government less involved in the process.

“I think the biggest way to kind of create more jobs … is to lower restrictions on certain things and, again, to kind of remove government from that situation,” Radner said. “I think that you’d have a lot more enterprise here and a lot of more private businesses start popping up if there weren’t as many restrictions here.”

Monday’s full forum can be viewed on the City of Seward’s YouTube channel.

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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