If the size of the crowd during the Soldotna City Council forum was any indicator of voter turnout for the municipal election, it’s going to be low again.
But, for the 19 adults and one child who attended the forum, the four candidates vying for two seats on the council spoke for nearly an hour about their views on marijuana, grocery taxes, capital project priorities and the overall financial health of the city.
Incumbent Linda Murphy is facing opposition from Dan Nelson for seat C.
Murphy has a long career in public service, including her jobs as the Kenai Peninsula borough’s clerk and then stints on the borough’s planning commission, the borough assembly and most recently the city council. She said, if elected, one more three-year term was likely the last foray into public office that she’d make.
“I’m standing for election again because I have some things I’d like to see finished,” she said. “Mainly, I’d like to see us settle the issue of whether we’re going to allow the commercialization of marijuana within the city. I’d also like to continue to explore annexation and whether we should, or should not, be looking at areas to annex outside the city.”
Nelson is a lifelong Alaskan who has done both public and private sector work including nine years as a borough employee. He has been a member of Soldotna’s planning and zoning commission since 2013 and said he’s ready to tackle issues on the city council.
“I really like the local politics. I think that’s where things happen,” Nelson said. “On the local level, we’re dealing with folks down the street and our neighbors and trying to do good things here.”
For seat A, incumbent Paul Whitney is running against Fred Sturman.
Whitney has worked as a police officer, public defender investigator and for the department of corrections during his career. He has been a councilman on the Fairbanks City Council, a member of the borough’s planning commission and most recently a Soldotna City Council member since 2013.
Whitney said the city is facing several issues that he wants to address including sales tax and marijuana.
“I think I have something to bring to the table and I definitely want to work for the community, do what’s best for us,” he said during his closing remarks. “I think we can do more to improve the looks of our city, bring in more business and more economic development.”
Sturman has not yet held public office, but he is one of the founding members of the Alliance of Concerned Taxpayers — a group that has advocated for things like term limits for borough assembly members, a cap on sales tax and capital project spending limits. He is a familiar figure at city council and borough assembly meetings where he often gives public testimony on budgets and the need to cut spending.
“I’ve seen the little town of Soldotna grow, I’ve been real proud of it,” he said during his opening remarks. “I’m still proud of Soldotna. But, I think we’re getting carried away. We’re getting too many employees. We’ve got some real problems in this state coming up and I think we need to start saving.”
One voter proposition on the Oct. 6 ballot has the potential to severely impact one of the city of Soldotna’s sources of income. If peninsula voters pass Proposition 1, the cost of buying groceries could down 3 percent in cities like Soldotna.
If passed, the proposition would repeal an ordinance allowing Soldotna to collect city sales tax on groceries year-round. Groceries are exempted from borough sales tax from September through May.
City manager Mark Dixson has estimated that the city will face a 15 percent drop in revenue of somewhere between $1-1.2 million.
Sturman, the lone city council candidate in support of the ballot proposition said he helped collected the signatures needed to get the proposition on the ballot.
“The City of Soldotna gets 80 percent of their income from sales tax,” he said. “I think a little dab of that money should go back to the people here in town and I will try my best to get it done.”
Whitney disagreed and does not support the ballot measure.
“Actually, the city is funded closer to 90-95 percent of their services ... through sales tax,” he said. He said sales tax revenue brings about $7.8 million in to the city each year.
“Most of our budget is funded through that sales tax. (There’s) going to be a big effect on what will happen to the city in the future (if the proposition passes),” he said. “That’s one of the major issues that’ll have to be addressed once the election is over with and that passes.”
Murphy and Nelson also said they did not support the initiative.
“I think we’ve got a great low property mill rate here in the city and a good amount of services,” Nelson said. “I don’t want to see that cut.”
A plan to research the feasibility of annexing neighboring territory — the city currently occupies 7.4 square miles of land — has drawn dozens of people to city council meetings to protest.
Most recently, the city council appropriated $150,000 for an economic analysis and public outreach process to explore annexation. Again, Sturman was the lone candidate who did not support studying the issue.
“I’m not for annexing,” he said. “I’ve already said that I didn’t want (people) in my city unless they wanted to come into my city. Until they say they want to be in the City of Soldotna, I have no intentions of ever going out and then forcing them into the city.”
Murphy said she supported studying annexation but would vote against it if landowners in the area to be annexed did not want to be in the city, or if it were not economically feasible to support the newly annexed territory.
Nelson said he wanted to city the city perform a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of any parcels that could be annexed; Whitney said some territories outside of the city had expressed interest in accessing city services.
“Like Linda (Murphy) said, if it’s going to cost the city residents money to annex them, then it’s just not going to happen,” Whitney said.
On marijuana regulation, the city is facing a decision to regulate marijuana consumption, testing, cultivation and sales within its city boundaries.
An ordinance being drafted by the city’s attorney is expected to be taken up by the city council before the end of the year and most of the candidates said they advocated for a cautious approach to allowing the drug to be commercially available inside city limits.
Whitney said work sessions with the current city council have indicated that the city will likely not allow cultivation, manufacturing or testing — however commercial sales could take place. Whitney said he was not convinced that city residents wanted retail sales.
“We’ve heard a lot of different information from people, mostly proponents of the marijuana issues,” he said. “I think we need to hear from the residents of the City of Soldotna who voted against that proposition about what’s going to happen with retail sales.”
Nelson said he would like to see the city take a proactive stance on regulations and not rely solely on the state’s marijuana control board to set guidelines. Nelson said he did not like the idea of restricting business but believed licensing for businesses could be a good compromise.
“I think it’s definitely coming into the city limits. I think we’re past the point where we can ban it,” he said.
“I’d like to continue (to study the issue) and also let residents know that these (regulations) are definitely subject to revisions or updating as the city learns. This is a very new thing for the city and the state.”
Murphy said she believed the city should initially ban all commercial sales of marijuana as well as banning, cultivation, manufacture or testing within city limits.
“We don’t know how this is going to work out in Alaska. We can’t look at Colorado, Oregon and Washington and say that’s how it’s going to work here,” she said. “I don’t think that the income we would derive from having marijuana sales in the city would make up for the cost of regulating marijuana.”
Sturman said he was against the legalization of marijuana but is a strong advocate of the voter-led initiative that made it legal in the state.
He said the city should wait for the state to release its regulations and then tailor its own. He is opposed to restricting the number of marijuana-centered businesses that can operate within city limits.
“If you’re going to have sales, let anyone sell it that’s selling cigarettes or wants to sell it,” he said. “Don’t make it a limited entry type of deal or a bar permit or a liquor license permit. It should be open to anybody that wants to sell the stuff, not just one or two people. I don’t think that the city should control it.”
Soldotna’s municipal election will take place on Oct. 6.
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @litmuslens.