Mayoral candidates quizzed at forum

Candidates for the position of Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor were quizzed Wednesday by residents at a meet-and-greet hosted by the Cohoe-Kasilof Community Council.

Residents asked the candidates, all of whom except Nikiski resident Tim O'Brien were present, about a variety of issues including the future of the Central Peninsula Hospital and funding of non-departmental organizations from the borough budget.

Specifically, candidates were asked if they agreed with the hospital's donations to the community including funding of non-profit organizations, and what, if any changes they would make to the hospital's governance structure if elected.

Nikiski resident and former assembly member Gary Superman said changes were needed in both capacities. At the "very least," he said, at least half of the Central Peninsula General Hospital, Inc. board should be elected and an attempt at merging the boards be considered.

"I think it is time for us to really examine whether or not we need to bring in some kind of professional management," he said. "You still have the oversight by the board. Part of it will be appointed by the mayor, hopefully, and the other part will be elected by the people."

Former borough mayor Dale Bagley said he would also look to make changes at the hospital, including making it easier for the administration to purchase more expensive equipment without having to go through the assembly process. That limit might be increased to a half million dollars or higher, he said.

He also questioned if the Hospital Service Area board needed to exist anymore and added the CPGH, Inc. board members should be elected.

"I want to see the hospital stay local," Bagley said. "I don't want to see it give money to non-profits - I don't believe that's the role of the hospital. As borough mayor, I don't get to give the kind of money they give to non-profits. It is borough money and I don't think they should be doing that."

Soldotna resident Fred Sturman said there should "definitely" have a new type of management of the hospital.

"The hospital has quite a bit of money in reserves and I think the hospital, instead of giving the money away, should be paying toward their bonds and debt and get rid of the debt this borough has," he said. "Before they even do a lot of the expansion ... we need to pay off our bonds because it is not too many more years here before the Medicare and the Medicaid is going to be a lot less and the money is not going to be there and we're losing a lot of people here on the Peninsula."

Kasilof resident and former assembly member Debbie Brown said she would seek to reorganize the boards that are "wasting people's money," and that she would personally work to ensure there is proper management and accountability of the hospital.

"It is my job to be very, very in tune with what the people want and I know for one thing that the people do not want their hospital board sponsoring softball teams," she said.

"When a consumer goes in to have their appendix out, they would like to have the benefit to the consumer ... not the softball team that needs sponsoring," she explained. "A lot of the time, we don't even know the half of what these organizations are sponsoring."

She added that she would not "sell the hospital," because residents are mostly interested in maintaining its control and ownership.

Former state legislator and borough mayor Mike Navarre said the hospital is "something we truly need to get right."

Although it is a huge economic engine in the local community, he reasoned, it is "not anymore sustainable than health care is sustainable at the national level."

"I agree with Fred that we should use some of the revenues that we are generating now to stockpile and help pay down debt so that when start seeing a loss in revenue, we are able to maneuver and have the ability to deal with some of the impacts that are coming down the line," he said.

Navarre said he didn't think getting rid of all the hospital's contributions to the community was a good idea.

"It really is something I know that the assembly dealt with and the mayor dealt with last year and the administration of the hospital at the time said it would scrutinize it more," he said. "I think there needs to be a policy developed as to just exactly how you do that."

Candidates were also asked about the borough's role in funding economic development and non-departmental organizations.

Bagley, who said he was "OK with not having a balanced budget," said he supported non-departmental funding.

"Almost every county, city, borough in the United States funds economic development, public transportation, tourism and secondary education and I think we should fund them to some level and make sure they are doing what they should be doing," he said.

Brown said she supported funding the college because the voters requested it, but to "force individuals as a government ... to fund non-profits, I think, is out of order and not appropriate."

"I believe that if we continue to do that, every non-profit then in the borough should be eligible and we should, basically in fairness, open it up to every non-profit," she said. "I would advise against that. So in fairness, I believe a more appropriate way to proceed is to not fund non-profit organizations."

She added that if "we want to fund non-profit organizations, let's choose to do that as an individual, not the government."

Sturman said he wouldn't have funded the non-departmentals either, but would have allocated money for the college. But, considering the college is "doing quite well," college funding from the borough should be put back on the ballot for reconsideration, he said.

"I believe in keeping the money in your pocket and you make up your mind where you want to donate the money or what you want to do with your own money because its your money," he said. "It's not the government's money - you earned it, you should be able to spend it the way you want to spend it."

Superman said it was the wrong time to come down on non-departmental organizations.

"Do I think it is a good idea to drop the ball on all economic development funding in this borough? Absolutely not," he said.

He said he would like to fund those organizations based on their performance.

"I would like to see some kind of product coming out of that entity at some point, something tangible maybe instead of a bunch of studies," he said. "But I think we are shooting ourselves in the foot if we say we don't want to fund any kind of economic development in this borough right now."

Navarre agreed that economic funding is "critically important" and that non-departmental organizations should be held accountable. He said he would also look at what the "public benefit" is of such organizations.

"And like it or not, it is going to have to be considered during the public process, the budget process, because any assembly member can offer an amendment to fund non-profits," he said.

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