Leslie Morton and Norm Blakeley are running for the Borough Assembly District 5/Sterling-Funny River seat. Blakeley declined to participate in the Clarion’s questionnaire.
1. What experience will you draw on in evaluating the borough’s $80 million budget?
Leslie Morton, District 5: For 14 years, I was on the governing board of the Kenai Watershed Forum, a successful nonpartisan and nonprofit organization that handles an annual budget of a million dollars or more. I served as both the board president and on the board’s finance committee. In my past career as a manager for the U.S. Navy on Guam, I was responsible for a $2.3 million annual budget to address natural resource issues. Early in my career as a Federal employee in Washington D.C., I served on the Interior Subcommittee of the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee (chaired by Senator Ted Stevens).
2. Do you think the borough provides an adequate level of services?
Morton: In a very general sense, ‘yes’. The most important services that KPB provides are our schools, hospital, emergency services, road maintenance, and solid waste management, which combined account for three-quarters of our budget. However, in the current climate of fiscal deficits at state and borough levels, some services critical for small segments of the population are not being met well. For example, funding is poor for those with problems stemming from mental health or substance abuse, and for rural residents in need of public transportation. Certain borough districts may also disproportionately suffer. For example, when the borough property tax exemption increased from $20K to $50K, the $2.7 million loss in revenue resulted in the Funny River community in District 5 losing full-time coverage of fire protection through Central Emergency Services. To make matters worse, the ambulance now has to come from Soldotna to retrieve those in need of emergency health care.
3. Has the borough struck the right balance between property tax, sales tax and other revenue sources? Are there changes you would propose?
Morton: Given that the current borough budget deficit is $4 million, the answer is ‘no’. This deficit isn’t due to poor management, but because of declining revenue from the borough’s sales tax (lower fuel prices) and the State of Alaska’s contributions to our operational and capital funds. In the near future, to balance the existing deficit, we will either have to cut services even deeper or find a reasonable way to increase revenue. Increasing the cap on sales tax from $500 to $1000 would contribute $3 million to our budget. We could slightly increase the property mil rate, as the current mil rate that specifically supports CES is the lowest in 6 years. The assembly unfortunately tabled discussion on the bed tax that would have primarily targeted tourists and not residents. Over the long haul, however, I do not advocate funding our budget through increased taxes. Rather, I will promote diversification of small business (including agriculture) and seek to make borough government more efficient.
4. What do you see as the biggest challenges facing the borough in the next three years?
Morton: Needless to say, budget, budget, and budget. We need to balance our desire for services in an era of declining local and state revenues. I believe our budget and what we choose to fund is a reflection of our values as a community. The top of my list, based on my discussions with residents in District 5, are ensuring reasonable funding for education, health care, and safety. Education is about keeping good teachers, reasonable teacher-to-student ratios, and maintaining our existing facilities. Developing health care issues stem from the opioid epidemic and an aging demographic. Community safety means providing reasonable road maintenance and supporting emergency services and health care. The thee big issues in District 5, which I hope to serve, are proposed annexation by the City of Soldotna (which I oppose), the developing marijuana industry (which I support), and emergency services (which I will work to improve).