Mayoral candidates tout experience at forum

The three candidates for borough mayor are leaning hard on their past experience to garner votes in next month’s election.

 

With less than a month to go until the municipal regular election, Dale Bagley and Linda Hutchings, both of Soldotna, and Charlie Pierce of Sterling, are getting their names out there with signs around the borough, advertisements and community meetings. At a packed luncheon of the joint Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce Wednesday, they each pitched their experience in management and politics as making them the best fit for the job.

Bagley, who currently represents District 4 on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, emphasized his past experience as mayor from 1999-2005. During that period, the borough administration began the expansion projects at Central Peninsula Hospital and coordinated the Arctic Winter Games on the peninsula in 2006.

“I don’t believe in just talking about things I’m gonna do,” he said during the forum. “I like to talk about things that I have done.”

Hutchings, whose only elected office was on the city of Soldotna’s home-rule charter commission in 2016, said she’ll lean on her experience as an accountant and manager, running the Hutchings Auto Group for more than four decades. She identified the three core services the borough provides — education, roads and solid waste — as priorities, along with maintaining current quality of life and looking for additional economic development opportunities, particularly in tourism.

“I have the experience, the energy and the commitment to tackle the issues, the challenges that we will be facing over the next several years, and I would dedicate myself as mayor toward responsible management,” she said. “I listen and work with borough residents, the assembly, local governments, boards and community groups. I know how to face the challenges that come before the borough.”

Pierce has often referenced his career as a manager at Enstar Natural Gas Co. as informing his approach to managing the borough. The borough mayor oversees all the service areas and employees of the borough employees, manages a large number of projects and resources, something Pierce said he has experience with at Enstar. He also served on the assembly for six years before being term-limited out in 2014.

“I think this position requires an individual that’s a generalist,” he said. “I’ve managed large projects, large construction projects. I’ve managed many thousands of dollars of resources.”

Throughout the campaign season, all three have said the borough budget is the biggest concern for whoever wins the mayor’s seat. The assembly approved a budget that spends out of the borough’s fund balance, something current borough Mayor Mike Navarre has said is not sustainable and needs to be addressed sooner rather than later.

Hutchings said she wouldn’t recommend a blanket cut until she could look over the fine details of the budget and find efficiencies there, but said she supported Proposition 3 on the upcoming ballot, which would raise the cap on taxable sales in the borough from $500 to $1,000.

“I will be supporting that because we have no other options,” she said. “It’s the responsible thing to do to bring our budget into balance.”

Bagley said he originally opposed the sales tax cap increase because the voters shot down a virtually identical proposition last year. Instead of the sales tax cap, he said he would have preferred a bed tax to go to the ballot because it’s been more than a decade since voters weighed in on that question, but the assembly shot it down. Though the borough is dipping into savings for fiscal year 2018 — Navarre’s administration estimates it will draw about $4 million out of the fund balance this year — the fiscal situation is actually not that bad in the short term because the borough has a healthy fund balance, Bagley said.

“There’s things that you can do to try to close the budget gap and there’s also things that we can do for revenue,” he said. “This is a manageable issue and we’ll get there.”

Pierce advocated more for a mixture of further cuts and some taxation, presenting a balanced budget to the assembly next year. He said he didn’t favor the “tax-spend” cycle but could support the sales tax cap increase to supplement the budget.

“I think the responsible thing to do is look at spending and avoid all forms of taxation,” he said. “But if there’s a tax that’s out there that I can wrap my hands around and support, it’d be this one.”

The candidates did agree on a few things — all said they supported Proposition 2 to issue bonds for a new heating, ventilation and air conditioning system in the George A. Navarre Borough Administration Building, though Pierce said he thought the borough should have planned for it years before rather than issuing bonds.

All three candidates have been busy fundraising, with each raising about $20,000 in campaign contributions in the last six months, according to campaign disclosure forms filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission. Pierce is leading the financial pack on spending, with about $23,500 in expenditures since Feb. 2, according to a form filed Sept. 4. Hutchings has spent just shy of $20,000 and Bagley has spent about $17,400, according to their campaign disclosure filings.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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