Budget in bull’s eye for assembly candidates

Six candidates are vying for three central Kenai Peninsula seats on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.

 

On Oct. 3, voters in assembly Districts 1, 2, 5, 6 and 8 will vote on who they want to represent them on the borough-wide governing body. Candidates for District 6, which covers the eastern peninsula and Sterling east of Otter Trail, and District 8, which covers the city of Homer, are running unopposed, but the other races have two candidates each.

In District 1, which covers most of the Kalifornsky area, Dan Castimore is challenging incumbent Brent Hibbert. In District 2, which covers the city of Kenai, Hal Smalley and Duane Bannock are competing for the seat currently occupied by Jill Schaefer, who announced last week that she did not intend to campaign for the seat, though her name will still appear on the ballot. In District 5, which covers Funny River and Sterling, voters will choose between Leslie Morton and Norm Blakeley to fill the seat recently vacated by Stan Welles, who resigned in August for health reasons.

At a forum during a joint luncheon for the Kenai and Soldotna chambers of commerce, all six candidates shared a wide range of opinions about a variety of issues, from hospital governance to taxation.

The candidates also weighed in on the upcoming ballot propositions, of which there are three — Proposition 1, which would ban commercial cannabis operations in the borough outside the cities; Proposition 2, which would approve up to $5 million in bonds for heating, ventilation and air conditioning repairs in the George A. Navarre Borough Administration Building; and Proposition 3, which would increase the cap on taxable sales from $500 to $1,000 except on residential rentals.

Their opinions varied on the propositions, but there’s one issue they all agreed on: all said the borough’s budget is the number one priority for them.

District 1

Castimore said he supported raising revenue to help bridge the current budget gap at the borough, though he said it likely can’t be fixed in one budget cycle. He said one place to raise revenue outside raising the mill rate or sales tax rate would be to charge service areas for the services they get from general government.

“I don’t think we’re going to find a way to cut $4 million out of our borough budget unless we do something drastic like cut $4 million in funding to our schools or $4 million to our seniors,” he said. “I think we’ll have to find some middle ground here.”

Hibbert, who has served on the assembly for about nine months after stepping into the seat vacated by former member Gary Knopp after Knopp was elected to the Alaska House of Representatives, said declining school enrollment and declining state contributions will likely contribute to the borough’s budget woes. He also didn’t identify any specific cuts in the budget, though said he wouldn’t look to add additional services not currently provided by the borough.

Both Castimore and Hibbert said they opposed Proposition 1, which will affect a number of businesses in their district. On Proposition 3, Hibbert said he voted against it when the assembly considered it because the voters rejected a similar measure by a wide margin in the October 2016 election.

“It was in front of the voters last year, and it was defeated by 15, 16 percent,” he said.

Castimore said he supported it because it would help balance the budget and provide services.

“I believe people need to pay for what services they get, so I will support any form of revenue generation,” he said.

District 2

Bannock, a former Kenai City Council member who billed himself as the candidate focused on “downward pressure on borough spending,” specifically said he would want to cut funding for the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, which currently receives about $300,000 in the borough budget. He also said he would look to combine departments in the borough administration and cut department heads.

“My number one goal as an assembly member is to lower the cost of government, to respect your tax dollars that you are forced to pay under threat of foreclosure of your home,” he said. “Those are important things to me.”

Smalley, who previously served on the borough assembly from 2009-2014, said he would look to additional revenues to support the borough budget, particularly on funding the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. Cuts alone would not support a sustainable budget, he said.

“You cannot cut your way to prosperity,” he said. “It never works. Hasn’t worked in Juneau, and it won’t work here. That doesn’t necessarily mean we don’t have cuts that we need to look at as an assembly, as an administration.”

Both Bannock and Smalley said Prop 1 does not apply to them because their district is within city limits, and the only people eligible to vote are those outside the cities. However, their personal opinions diverged; Bannock said he would “cheerfully” vote yes on Prop 1 if he lived outside city limits while Smalley said he was concerned about the potential backlash for the borough if it does pass. Their opinions similarly diverged on Proposition 3, with Bannock saying he opposed raising additional taxes.

“That is a stupid question that shouldn’t even be on the ballot — do you want to pay more taxes?” he said. “The answer is no, you don’t.”

Smalley, on the other hand, said it was time to raise it, as the cap has not increased for nearly 50 years and inflation would have pushed the $500 to nearly $3,500 by now, according to borough estimates.

“Yes, $30 to some people is a lot of money,” he said. “But it’s not a lot (after inflation proofing) … it’s time we do it.”

District 5

Morton said she’s focused on maintaining current services and quality of life on the peninsula and that the budget should reflect community desires. Though she didn’t identify any specific budget cuts at the forum, she said she’d have to ask residents in her district what services they wanted and budget accordingly.

“I think the budget is a reflection of our values as a community,” she said. “…I don’t believe our budget woes here are going to able to be fixed in one budget cycle. I think it’s going to take a lot of work by a lot of people over a few years.”

Blakeley, her opponent, said he was focused on reducing spending, though he said he hadn’t reviewed the budget enough to identify specific cuts.

“I can’t tell you any cuts I know of off the top of my head, but I’m sure gonna look at it and it’s going to be important to me and I think there is things that we can cut,” he said.

Morton and Blakeley disagreed on Proposition 1, with Morton saying she’d vote no and Blakeley yes. They also disagreed on Proposition 3, with Morton saying it didn’t affect her much personally but she would likely support it.

“It’s not personally going to hurt me that much if I (purchase items over $500) occasionally, so I guess I would say I’m in favor of it, but I’m going to go with whatever the voters say on it,” she said.

Blakeley said he would oppose it personally, but would support it if voters approved it.

“I’m not much on taxing anybody anymore than they already are,” he said. “If it passes, I’d support it, and if that’s the way we can do something like that, I’d be in favor.”

The municipal election is Oct. 3. Poll will be open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m.

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

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