Next week will bring not only five new assembly members and a draft of new service area board members and city council members in the individual cities, but it will also bring a new leader into the highest office at the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
Three candidates have spent the last six months busily campaigning for the office of borough mayor — Charlie Pierce of Sterling and Dale Bagley and Linda Hutchings, both of Soldotna. Voters on Oct. 3 will determine which will step up into the borough mayor’s office, a new role for Pierce or Hutchings or a return to the seat for Bagley, who last served as mayor from 1999–2005.
Around the borough, the three have gotten different impressions of how the citizens feel about the borough’s direction. Bagley said he’d gotten the impression that people are somewhat positive.
“I think most people I’ve talked to have been pretty optimistic about the borough and the services a second class borough provides,” he said.
Hutchings said many people have told her they are happy someone who isn’t a politician was running. Many are concerned about public schools and health care quality, as well as issues unique to their regions, she said.
“I get a really good feeling from people and it’s amazing to me, the people that have come in and said, ‘I voted for you, I supported you’ — people I would have never expected coming in,” she said. “It’s been very humbling, I will tell you that. I think more than anything (people) want to see the continuity and the stability of the borough.”
Pierce said he’d seen that people are not overwhelmingly optimistic and many are upset about the Legislature’s decisions and the governor’s decisions, particularly about the capping of the Permanent Fund dividend amount and the potential for a statewide wage tax, scheduled to be discussed at the October legislative special session.
“I wouldn’t say they’re optimistic — they’re guarded,” he said. “They don’t know what position to take, they don’t know whether it’s going to be really, really good or really, really bad.”
At the various forums, the three have taken different tacks on how to balance the borough’s budget. Bagley, who has served on the borough assembly representing District 4-Soldotna since 2013, said the borough’s spending isn’t out of control and the problem is because of drops in various sources of revenue for the past several years.
“It’s just that our revenue has declined for various reasons and we’ll do what we can to cut, but we’ll do what we need to do to find some additional revenue,” he said.
Hutchings has agreed that cuts alone won’t solve the budget problem and has supported raising the sales tax cap. From reports over the summer saying tourism was up, she said she thought sales tax revenues might come in more than expected and there may be ways to find efficiencies, knocking the deficit down below the projected $4 million.
“I am not a gloom and doom person,” she said. “… I think you have to look at all sides of the question, all aspects. I think we have such good opportunities to bring in new businesses to the borough.”
Pierce said he wants to find places to reduce the budget and has said he would prefer to reduce the budget before opting to raise taxes. He often cites his career at Enstar Natural Gas Co. as informing his views about budgets, saying the private sector has borne a lot of reductions amid the state’s economic downturn and that the government sector should go through some tightening as well. The borough needs to balance its budget now, before the deficit grows, he said.
He’s also advocated for forecasting and taking longer looks at the borough’s finances, such as projecting when positions come vacant, to see if they need to be filled or can be left empty. Even when the amounts saved are small, they can contribute to reducing the budget, he said.
“Every dollar you save is a dollar saved,” he said. “It’s immaterial, but at the end of the day when you’re trying to save four million of them, you have to find four million of them. Every dollar you put in the bank you can save.”
All three candidates have been heavily pressured throughout the campaign to commit to a position on Proposition 1, a ballot proposition that asks voters outside the city limits whether commercial cannabis operations outside the cities should be legal. As Soldotna residents, Hutchings and Bagley don’t get to formally vote on the proposition, but Pierce does. All three have said they will fairly administer the industry once they assume office, but pro-cannabis industry campaign group Keep Cannabis Legal has been pressuring them to commit to personal support for the industry.
Hutchings said she supports a legal, regulated industry to provide for safe access, particularly for medical purposes, though she did not commit to a theoretical yes or no vote if she were able to vote on the proposition.
Bagley has stayed consistently neutral. He said feels neutral about it personally as well and to throw his support behind either side would be hypocritical for him.
“I guess I’m willing to put any proposal forward and decide on it, and I know as mayor you are more of an administrator than political, but you are an administrator either way,” he said. “… I think if you want confidence from either side, depending on which way the vote goes, you should have more of a neutral stance.”
Pierce formally stated that he will vote “no” at a Sept. 21 forum hosted by the Kenai Peninsula Builders Association. It’s been a long decision for him, he said — similarly difficult to his decision on the original proposition that legalized commercial cannabis in the state. However, he said he recognizes that cannabis won’t go away even if it is made illegal in the borough outside the cities and he wanted people to have assurance that the product is safe if they were going to use it, whether for recreational or medicinal purposes.
He offered some criticism of Hutchings and Bagley for not committing to a yes or now when he was pressured to do so. He also said it was distracting that this issue could be a dividing point for voters, when there were a lot of issues that any of the candidates could address differently, despite their stance on Proposition 1.
“(The Keep Cannabis Legal group) pushed me,” he said. “They pushed me for two months on this issue. … There are so many other things that need to be managed correctly.”