Two candidates vying to be Soldotna’s next mayor attended a forum Wednesday night to answer questions about how they would serve the city.
The candidates, Charlene Tautfest and Pete Sprague, are running in a Dec. 17 special election to replace John Nels Anderson, who served as Soldotna’s mayor until his passing in September.
The forum was hosted at Froso’s restaurant by the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce and moderated by Merrill Sikorski. Members of the audience also had the opportunity to ask questions. Some of the questions and the candidates’ answers have been summarized below, and the full forum can be viewed online on the Clarion’s Facebook Page.
What qualifications do you have to serve as Soldotna’s Mayor?
Sprague: I’ve served on the assembly for 12 years, council for four years and as mayor for two years. So that’s nearly 20 years of service just in the local arena. I’ve also served on the Tsalteshi Board and I currently serve as president of the Soldotna Historical Society.
Tautfest: I don’t have the experience as mayor at all, but I do have state experience. I serve on the Governor’s Council on Disabilities and Special Education and the Alaska Mental Health Board. I also serve on the Alaska Psychiatric Institute’s Governing Board and the Alaska Coalition on Housing and Homelessness. I’ve been involved with various committees in the state, including the Legislative Advocacy Committee, the Peer Certification Steering Committee with the Division of Behavioral Health, the 1115 Medicaid Waiver Benefit Team with the Division of Behavioral Health. I’ve done conference planning with the Full Lives conference and the Employment Conference in Anchorage, and locally I serve on the Peninsula Community Health Services Board as the current president. I served as Project Homeless Connect Donations Chair a couple years ago. I’m also on the Kenai Peninsula Transportation Committee, the Shelter Development Workgroup, I took part in the Kenai Peninsula Re-Entry Coalition, and I was a classroom volunteer for 18 years in the school district. And Rotary and Red Cross.
What challenges do you see for the city in the coming years?
Sprague: … We’re still wrestling with what to do about a visitor’s center/convention center. We’re looking at what we need to do to spruce up the sports center, because it does need work and that might be a way to incorporate some of the other issues that we’re looking at. Another big one that Merrill mentioned at the city council forum back in October was the parking for Soldotna Creek Park. That’s a big issue that we really do need to find a resolution for.
Tautfest: The Alaska Mental Health Board had their meeting here back in September, and I listened to a lot of concerns. There was one recurring theme, and that was transportation. We have a public transportation problem here in that we don’t have any. I would like to see some sort of affordable transportation for folks, whether they’re here in the summer or just local folks. I know Seward has a trolley system and I thought that would be great here. And housing is another issue that I think should be addressed.”
What are some of the greatest opportunities that you see for the city of Soldotna?
Tautfest: I would like a convention center here to bring conferences into the area. I attended a lot of conferences. I attended one in Sitka last year and they had a fishing excursion I thought that would be great in Soldotna, a conference center to get those folks here. And then they may want to come back and visit again.
Sprague: We’re a great spot for anyone that wants to come to Alaska or the Kenai Peninsula. I think a convention center is a big-ticket item and I’m not quite sure how far we need to go in that direction. … I’ve been wrestling with that one for years myself, and the city has as well. I think there’s a lot of opportunity to keep getting the word out about what Soldotna has to offer and the quality of life that we have here.”
Is taxation in Soldotna too high, about right, or too low?
Sprague: I think it’s just about right. I think we have really the best taxation regime in the state of Alaska, if not the country. We have a very small property tax, very small, half a mill is negligible, and our sales tax is 3 percent. … So I think we have a good balance and I think that our financial situation reflects how well we’re doing. It is a good balance.
Tautfest: I think it’s about right. Property taxes are low, sales tax is low, some areas in the Lower 48 pay property taxes that are really, really high, same with sales taxes, so I think it’s about right.
Do you agree or disagree with the plan to annex the roughly 3.8 square miles of land adjacent to existent city boundaries?
Sprague: I do support annexation. The pieces that I thought were really important from the get-go were, number one, Funny River Road, because a lot of those folks are on city water and sewer and have agreed to support annexation. Number two, south of town, because the city does have property within the trail system, so I support that as well. … I certainly don’t want to second-guess the city council on what they want at this point.
Tautfest: From what I know about it, I would say no for annexation. Too many people just don’t want it, and I don’t think the city needs the money. When I think of annexation, you annex to get more revenue — whether its property or sales tax — and I just don’t see it. I think the city’s doing fine financially from what I’ve heard.
What do you see as the city’s role in attracting new businesses and families to Soldotna?
Tautfest: Having all these year-round activities I think is helpful for families to enjoy and get out, and I’d like to see more of them advertised.
Sprague: We want to make Soldotna a place that people want to come to and if they want to come here they’ll live here and start their businesses here and they’ll start their families here. I think that’s the key.
Do you see a path forward for either the Soldotna Field House or the Soldotna Visitor’s Center?
Tautfest: I would like to see a visitor’s center/convention center move forward. That’s just me. Build it and they will come.
Sprague: I really think at this point we need to let the dust settle a little bit. Even though the whole project did fail by a small amount of voters, I still think and what I’ve heard from folks is that the voters said no, so let’s wait a little while on this. I would subscribe to that.
If you received a one million dollar grant to use for the city any way that you wanted, what would you do with it?
Sprague: First, I’d like to have more pedestrian accessibility. It’s challenging right now to get around and I would like to see more ways for folks to get across both highways for pedestrians and bikers to access. I would also like to see some improvements for parking at Soldotna Creek Park, which is really the crown jewel of the city.
Tautfest: I had parking in my notes here, because we need a parking structure. There’s just not enough parking at Soldotna Creek Park and I’d love a parking lot somewhere that had access so that people could walk to things and have access to a bus stop there. Also transportation, housing, I’d like to see some type of a shelter for the homeless, and the convention center. I know that’s probably way more than a million, but it’s a start.
What’s a stereotype about Soldotna that you believe people get wrong?
Sprague: Maybe that we’re not a modern, progressive, forward-looking town, city and area. I think that we are. … Soldotna is beautifying. It’s growing, and I think it’s really improved and matured. I’m really proud of where we are and have a bright outlook for the future.
Tautfest: I don’t hear a lot of stereotypes about Soldotna. I think it’s a very friendly city. Maybe that’s it’s just a fishing community, but it’s more than that. Families live here, work here, thrive here, play here, retire here, so there’s a lot more to Soldotna than just fishing.
In the last six months, have either of you attended city council meetings?
Sprague: Yes, I was at the meeting two weeks ago and I listen to all of the meetings online.
Tautfest: Yes, I have. I think the city council is awesome, they’re very engaged and it’s great.
What ideas do you have for making Soldotna more friendly for pedestrians and cyclists in the city?
Sprague: I’d like to see improved bike lanes. Ideally I’d like to see an overpass at the Y, you know with our million dollars in magic-wand money, to improve connectivity for our walkers and bikers and runners, which I am all of the above.
Tautfest: I’d like the sidewalks plowed so people can actually walk down them. I almost hit a lady the other day because she couldn’t, she had to walk down the road. And just more accessibility for bikes and walking.
Do either of you envision anything in the future where we can bring our teenagers after school?
Tautfest: I know there was a teen center here at one time and I don’t know why that is no longer available. I don’t know if it’s just because people weren’t attending it or what the challenges were with that. I think the schools provide a lot of after-school activities, so I’d say that. The parks as well.
Sprague: I know the Boys and Girls Club did have their facility right across the street, and I think there were budgetary reasons why it closed. … But the bottom line is that it’s a funding issue. The city has, over the years, budgeted $35,000 to the Boys and Girls Club, and it just doesn’t perform as well as the clubhouse for younger kids. That is a visible issue, and it’s something we need to address.
How do you envision getting more housing and affordable housing into the city given that annexation has been a controversial issue when it comes to expanding our footprint?
Sprague: I think right now Soldotna has a limited amount of acreage. Right now we’re at 7.2 square miles, and with annexation we might be getting more vacant land that would provide opportunities for developers to subdivide and build. I think a lot of that just as far as housing is that it’s a capitalism/private enterprise issue. If the demand is there then folks will develop the land. Affordable housing and subsidized housing, I’m not sure what willingness or need is there. Granted there is a homelessness problem but I’m not sure how the city would approach affordable housing from a municipality standpoint.
Tautfest: We have a lot of seasonal housing here, and that provides a challenge for folks that want to rent and they can only rent for nine months and then may be homeless for three, so just approaching landlords and then building is the only thing I can think of.