The eastern Kenai Peninsula will have a new representative on the nine-member Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly after assembly members choose from three applicants to replace Brandii Holmdahl at their March 7 meeting.
Holmdahl announced in January that she was resigning from the assembly to move to Boston for work. She represents the borough’s Disctrict 6, which covers the eastern peninsula towns on the Seward Highway, as well as Cooper Landing and the eastern part of Sterling.
After sitting at their first meeting on April 4, the new appointee will remain on the assembly until the borough’s October 2017 municipal election.
The three applicants who responded to the opening by the deadline on Thursday were Larry Smith of Cooper Landing, David Cleveland of Sterling, and Kenn Carpenter of Seward.
Formerly in law enforcement, Cleveland has worked for the Alaska Department of Corrections at Seward’s Spring Creek Correctional Facility and works presently at Kenai’s Wildwood Correctional Facility. He ran unsuccessfully for the borough assembly in the 1990s, and has since coached Soldotna High School’s softball team and sat on the board of the Kenai Little League nonprofit group.
“Maybe I can bring some stuff to the table that will make things better,” Cleveland said of his reasons for seeking the assembly seat. “It seems kind of Pollyanna, but that’s really what I want to do.”
An issue Cleveland named as important was Borough Mayor Mike Navarre’s proposals for revisions to the borough tax code — two of which, doubling the sales tax cap and repealing a property tax exemption for senior citizens, failed as ballot initiatives in Oct. 2016, while others — such as making non-profits subject to sales tax — have gone into effect.
Though he said the taxes that went into effect were “fine,” Cleveland said he may have other ideas about tax measures.
“We’re lucky that we live in a very diversified place — we have light industry with the oil and tourism with the fish and all that, and there’s always cuts to be made, but there’s always places to look for more money,” Cleveland said. “I would hope that I can bring some practicality to that and get a nice even balance.”
As for concerns local to the area he would represent, Cleveland said Sterling’s growing population has created an increased need for services. The 2000 Census recorded Sterling’s population as 4,705; a 2016 estimate by the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District puts it at 6,011.
“What we need to look at is making sure the roads are kept up,” Cleveland said. “The road I live on, when I moved out there there was maybe 30 people there. There’s 200 families living out my road now — that’s a vast difference … which means a lot more traffic. With that many people out there, it’s something they need to look at.”
Smith grew up on the Kenai Peninsula, and after serving in the U.S. Marine Corps he co-founded the Cooper Landing-based contracting business D&L Construction with his brother. His business contracts for road-service work around the state, including with the Kenai Peninsula borough for grading, plowing, and sanding on some borough roads in the Kalifornsky Beach Area.
Though Smith hasn’t held elected office before, he sits on the borough’s seven-member Road Service Area Board, and ran for the Alaska House of Representatives in 1978 and 2000 — getting the endorsement of present borough assembly member (then-borough mayor) Dale Bagley in the latter race — and for the borough assembly in the 1980s. He’s also a past chair of the Cooper Landing Planning Advisory Commission. Smith said he’d approach borough government “with no agenda at all.”
He emphasized the budget issues the borough will likely encounter as Alaska’s economy suffers from the decline in oil markets. As a Road Service Area Board member, he’s already seen budgets shrinking, and said that to get a balanced budget, “we’re just going to have to see what people are willing to pay for.”
“It all depends on what people want,” he said. “I think we’re headed into some really tough economic times. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of the recession or the oil price drop. I think it’s just beginning. It looks like you go into restaurants around here and there’s less and less people. I’ve got people coming into my business every week looking for jobs, they say ‘I was laid off from the oilfield.’ I honestly think we’re headed into a deeper recession. We’ll have to see what happens — if people are willing to raise their taxes, or to take less in services.”
Carpenter, who hadn’t responded to requests for interviews by print time Sunday evening, previously ran against Holmdahl in the 2015 election for the assembly seat he’s now applying for.
Carpenter grew up in Eagle River and has lived in Seward since 2006, according to statements he submitted to the borough with his assembly seat application. A former charter boat captain and diesel instructor for Seward’s Alaska Vocational Technical Education Center (AVTEC), he now works as a procurement officer for AVTEC.
“(I) believe strongly in government, but believe that the people of communities should be more involved in that government and their voices should be heard,” Carpenter wrote in his application. “…Taxes, property taxes, right-of-ways and property ownership are all issues that I believe need to be addressed.”
As the assembly begins working on the borough’s upcoming budget, its largest expense remains education funding, which takes up 40.85 percent of the present borough budget. In its last budget cycle, the borough assembly voted to give the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District $48.23 million, about $3 million short of the “cap” — the maximum local contribution allowed by state law — of $51.28 million. The assembly has not voted to fund the school district to the cap for the past two years, though each year school district officials — faced with shrinking revenue from the state — have advocated for them to do so.
Cleveland said the school budget should be weighed against other borough priorities.
“Based on the borough income, you have to sit down and obviously crunch numbers, and if we can squeeze a bit more out for the schools, that’s what I’d like,” Cleveland said. “But we’ve got to take care of the roads, we’ve got waste management, all of that keeps going.”
Smith said the school budget deserves attention.
“I know there are all kinds of expenditures and stuff that has to do with education, and just like any other government budget, I’m sure there’s areas that could be found in the education budget that could be cut,” Smith said. “…If I was to get in, I guess I’d take a more in-depth look at the school budget. But I don’t have any issues with it at the present time. I know it’s the largest expenditure the borough has, and that’s one of the things the government’s supposed to do, is provide funding for education.”
The new member will be the last of three people to join the assembly by appointment since its January 3 meeting, when Brent Hibbert replaced former assembly member Gary Knopp (R-Kenai), who had been elected to the Alaska House of Representatives and is now in Juneau. In their Feb. 14 meeting, assembly members also appointed Jill Schaefer to replace outgoing assembly member Blaine Gilman, who was moving out of his district.