Wednesday, October 1, 2008

May or may not — Carey vs. Williams: Only 1 mayor will get borough post

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

Soldotna Mayor Dave Carey is hoping to follow in former Kenai Mayor John Williams’ footsteps in moving on from city government to the position of Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor.

He’ll have to unseat Williams to do it, since Williams is running for a second term.

Voters on the central peninsula are familiar with both men, as they’ve both been active in the local communities and politics for decades.

Williams has lived on the Kenai Peninsula for 40 years now. He helped found Kenai Peninsula College, worked in the oil and gas industry and has owned and operated a real estate business. He served as mayor of the city of Kenai for 18 years, and has been borough mayor for three years.

Carey moved to the peninsula in 1961. He is a retired teacher with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District and an adjunct professor at Kenai Peninsula College. In the political realm, he is the president of the board of directors of Homer Electric Association, president of the Kenai River Special Management Area board, and is nearing the end of his third term as mayor of Soldotna.

Anyone attending com-munity barbecues, food bank fundraisers, parades, ribbon cuttings or similar community events likely knows the candidates. But getting to know their stance on the myriad issues facing the borough in the next three years can be more difficult to do.

To help get better acquainted, representatives of several segments of the community were asked what they considered to be the most pressing issues the borough mayor will likely face in the next three years. Mayoral candidates were then asked to respond to those concerns.

Proposition 1 on the Oct. 7 ballot — the grocery sales tax exemption initiative — and handling of the borough budget led the list of interests in the business community.

“It seems like taxes have been kind of at the top of the mind for everybody, especially the grocery tax initiative,” said Tina Baldridge, director of the Kenai Chamber of Commerce.
“And the financial status of the borough budget was discussed, how the budget was going to be organized and where they’re going to appropriate money, how they’re going to manage that,” Baldridge said.

Animal control in the borough has also been of interest, said Michelle Glaves, director of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce.

Williams has come out against the grocery tax initiative, largely because it would disrupt the borough budget in the middle of the fiscal year, he said.

“If you’re going to do something like this, come in and talk to the administration and talk to the assembly, set the wheels in motion at budget time, not midterm. The budget, once set, is like a balloon, you push your finger in one side and it pooches out the other side,” he said.

Carey has declined to say whether or not he favors the initiative while he still is serving as mayor of Soldotna, since the city is seeking an exemption that would allow it to collect sales taxes on groceries, even if the initiative passes.

Both pledged they would make the budget work with reduced revenues if the initiative passes.

For the borough’s general fund budget, Carey said he would present the assembly with a budget that would cap borough spending at no more than inflation.

Williams also said he has no plans to increase the general fund budget, and pointed to his work to cut and balance the budget in the three years he’s been in office.

Neither Carey nor Williams foresee pursuing a change in tax rates in the near future, although tweaks in how taxes are collected may come about.

Carey proposes supporting an Alaska Municipal League proposal to increase property tax exemptions from $200,000 to $500,000.

“I want to be sure people living in homes can stay there,” he said.

Williams and Carey suggested pursuing changes in how property tax assessments are done at the state level.

“Working with (legislators and the state assessor’s office) to try to draft some kind of alternatives to give us extra tools to work with so we’re not hamstrung with such an onerous, one-way-fits-all state law,” Williams said.

On animal control, Williams said several proposed options have been discussed over the years, including having the borough help shoulder the costs of city animal control programs, but nothing will happen unless residents want it to.

“Until the general public convinces the assembly that this is something we need, I doubt very seriously that the office of mayor would go through with it,” Williams said.
Carey has a similar, if more forceful, take on the issue:

“Absolutely not. I don’t believe it is a function the borough should take on unless a service area is set up by voters,” he said.

Tourism operators hope the borough mayor will invest in the industry.

Shanon Hamrick, director of the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, said tourism businesses want to know that proceeds from the recreation sales tax that went into effect in April are reinvested in the industry. Of KPTMC’s $600,000 budget, the borough contributed about $300,000 last year, Hamrick said.

“When you tax an industry it’s important to give back to that industry,” Hamrick said. “… With the issue with the grocery tax, anytime that the borough loses a source of income, tourism is kind of seen as low-hanging fruit. KPTMC would like to know what the stance is from both candidates on investing in the future of the Kenai Peninsula by investing in tourism marketing.”

Infrastructure, including road maintenance and visitor services such as rest stops and visitor centers, are a concern in the tourism industry, as well.

Carey said he is in favor of supporting KPTMC and its marketing efforts, though he doesn’t want publications outside the borough to be paid for advertising. He also is not in favor of the recreation sales tax that currently generates some of KPTMC’s budget.
“I think it’s just another way to hurt the tourism businesses,” he said.

Williams likewise is in favor of supporting tourism marketing efforts, and noted he placed an extra $75,000 in the budget for instate tourism marketing to offset the expected drop in out-of-state visitors.

Roads have been one of Williams’ main campaign points this election.

“All three years we’ve been working to build up the road money pool,” he said.

Between reserves, money from the federal government and the state, and if voters approve the state roads bond issue on the upcoming ballot, Williams estimates having about $28 million for roads projects. He said he’s already hired a new roads engineer and a priority list is being developed, on which $5 million to $7 million will be spent a year.

“We need better roads all over this borough. I’m tired of living in 1930s roads conditions,” Williams said at the League of Women Voters forum.

Carey said he would like to see a comprehensive, five-year funded plan from the state to address infrastructure needs.

“We have so many more roads than we can possibly service at this time,” he said. “What is needed is a very large infusion of state money to bring those roads up to standards. Five years would give us a chance to look at all roads in the borough to assess priorities to look at as many roads as possible.” Carey also said he is very concerned with the restriction of a beach access road in Nikiski.

“I want to examine how that’s occurred,” he said.

The borough mayor needs to be a partner with industry on the Kenai Peninsula, through supporting current projects and new initiatives, as well as trying to solve the energy puzzle, said Milt Allen, project manager for the southern district of Udelhoven Oilfield Services.

“We need industry now, so that we secure things for the future,” Allen said. “There’s an awful lot of potential right here on the peninsula that we need to enhance. There’s all kinds of proposals for new industry, and we need those things.”

Working toward getting a natural gas bullet line to the peninsula also is crucial to the peninsula’s industrial future.

In Carey’s view, the best way to support industry on the peninsula is to have a stable tax base and lower energy costs.

“Working with HEA and the projects they have in terms of alternative energy and to keep costs as low as possible when you’re talking about taxes and energy has the largest effects on industry and their ability to stay here,” he said.

Carey supports bringing a natural gas line from the North Slope to the Matanuska-Susitna area, so it can be routed to the peninsula. He supports the proposed Chuitna Coal Mine across Cook Inlet if it proves feasible. Likewise, he supports Pebble Mine.

“If all the studies show that it’s a good thing and has the strictest environmental safeguards, then yes, I would support it. It gives us jobs,” Carey said.

Williams said he has been working for years to promote the peninsula’s oil and gas industry, including testifying on behalf of the All-Alaska Gas Line project with a bullet line to Cook Inlet. Williams supports building a plant at Glennallen with two pipelines from there, one carrying natural gas and the other liquefied natural gas that could be piped to Cook Inlet and manufactured on the peninsula.

He voiced a similar stance to Carey on Chuitna and Pebble mines.

“With any major project two things are foremost — can they permit it under the current regulations and maintain a safe environment, and can they design it so that it runs safely and properly within the boundaries of the permitting system. You never rush to judgment on those kinds of projects,” he said.

Both Dwight Kramer, chair of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition, and Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, want to see the borough continue to support the repair of blocked and deteriorating culverts on the peninsula to allow unobstructed salmon migration. The borough contributed $100,000 last year and another $100,000 is in this year’s budget to address hundreds of blocked or soon-to-be blocked culverts.

Infrastructure, again, was a concern. Gease said he wants to know that easements along the river and infrastructure for public access to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers remain on the borough’s radar screen. Facilitating fairness in the fishing industry will also be important for the mayor.

“The borough needs to do a good job making sure that there’s equal support for all the fishing industries. … It seems like they’ve gotten off track and just supported one particular segment. All of them are important to the well-being of the community as well as the borough’s financial well-being,” Kramer said.

Carey would like to see culvert remediation included in the comprehensive five-year infrastructure plan he wants from the state.

He also believes the borough should take a more active role in safeguarding the health of the Kenai River.

“The borough must be much more proactive in making sure we protect all the life in that river. At the same time, we must promote local people, not for-profit people, taking their children down to the river and having a favorable experience,” Carey said.

He agrees the borough should promote all fishing user groups equally.

On culverts, Williams said he put the money in the budget for culvert reclamation, which was parleyed into even more funding by the Kenai Watershed Forum.

He said that money is a way to support all river user groups, since improving fish habitat and migration means more fish survive and come back to spawn, helping all fishing user groups.

Williams also noted he’s changed his mind on banning two-stroke motors on the river. He was skeptical of the plan at first, but since seeing water quality reports showing less hydrocarbon pollution since the switch to four-strokes was made, he’s now a believer.
“I was somewhat against it when it came out but the proof is in the clean water. No more pudding,” he said.

Carey and Williams have faced the same question repeatedly during their campaigns: Will you fund education “to the cap,” meaning the maximum amount a local municipality is allowed to spend on education under state law?

“Education funding to the cap is absolutely essential to the continued well-being of our school district,” said Kenai Peninsula Borough School District Superintendent Donna Peterson.

Carey is hesitant to commit to full funding without knowing what the cap will be.
“I do not think it is prudent, managementwise, to promise three years in advance when you have no idea what the amount will be,” he said.

Williams counters that the borough does know what the amount will be, thanks to the Legislature passing a forward funding plan for education last session that spells out the state funding formula and increases to it in the next few years.

“Yes, fund to the cap. Absolutely,” he said at the League of Women Voters forum.
The general health of the borough contributes to the health of the school district, because student enrollment generates funding for the district, Peterson said. In that vein, having an equitable, balanced budget and sustainable jobs will encourage families to live on the peninsula.

Vocational education is another topic of interest in education, at the secondary and postsecondary levels.

“I hope the mayor takes our message to truly get through to the Legislature and to the governor of this need in their borough in order to support the workforce demands of our state,” said Gary Turner, director of Kenai Peninsula College.

Turner said KPC’s technical programs have a year waiting list because he doesn’t have the resources to expand the programs enough to accommodate everyone. Part of the crunch is space-related. KPC needs student housing in order to expand, especially in vocational education, he said.

“KPC is looked at as leaders in these programs in our state, but I can’t graduate them if I can’t house them. There’s a huge demand for it, and that’s today. What happens if we get a gas pipeline or any other projects that might be out there?” he said.

Carey is in favor of funding for student housing at Kenai Peninsula College, and of expanding vocational education opportunities for veterans returning from service.

He doesn’t think the state or university system will pony up all the money necessary for these initiatives, however. He favors putting an education mill rate increase on the ballot, so voters can decide whether they want to make the borough a more active partner in KPC.
“We need to have a good discussion and talk about whether we want to move back to being a community college, specifically for the purpose of vocational education,” he said.

Williams thinks the current level of borough funding for KPC is adequate, but said he intends to work closely with University of Alaska Chancellor Fran Ulmer and the Legislature to secure $12 million for KPC housing.

“I think that it would be a most worthy addition to the college,” he said.

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