Now that the primary election is over, is it time for candidates in municipal elections to get their campaigns under way.
Candidates for Kenai City Council met for their first forum of this election season Wednesday at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce weekly luncheon. Five candidates are running for the two open council seats. The two highest vote getters will win the seats.
Incumbents Duane Bannock and Linda Swarner and challengers Dustin Aaronson, "Ozzie" Osborne and Barry Eldridge participated in a question-and-answer session moderated by Marge Hays of the League of Women Voters.
Bannock has been a council member for the last nine years. Swarner has served as vice mayor for the council since 1999 and has been a Kenai resident since 1975. Aaronson has lived in Kenai for 25 years. Osborne serves on the Planning and Zoning Commission and has been a Kenai resident since 1973. Eldridge, a Kenai resident of 18 years, has served on the Harbor Commission.
Each candidate was given a chance to make opening and closing remarks and answer the questions posed by the moderator and questions submitted from the audience. Osborne did not attend the entire meeting, as he had a prior commitment.
The first topic of discussion regarded the city's comprehensive plan that the Planning and Zoning Commission has been putting together, which will act as a guide for how residents and city officials want the city to look, operate and be like in the future Candidates were asked what they hope the plan will include.
Bannock, who is the council liaison to the Planning and Zoning Commission, responded that one of the main issues to come out of past community workshops is a desire to define a downtown area. That issue creates further questions, like how to define it and how to deal with traffic, sidewalks and snow removal in that area.
Eldridge said he participated in some of the community discussions and hopes that it will define areas designated for commercial use and residential use and that it will bring a commercial center into town.
Osborne, a Planning and Zoning Commission member, commented that there are a lot of things the plan needs to address, like what to do with Millennium Square (the city-owned tract of land between the senior center and Bridge Access Road).
Swarner didn't give a specific items she hopes the plan will include, but she did say it is a great project for the city, and she appreciates all the effort that has gone into it.
Aaronson was concerned about the lack of a provision saying that the Kenai Spur Highway past Kentucky Fried Chicken should not be zoned commercial.
According to Aaronson, residents at the early meetings he attended came to a consensus on that point, but the provision was dropped from the plan in revision. He said he thinks it should be returned to the plan.
The next question asked candidates if they support the repeal of the sales tax on nonprepared food items, and what budgetary measures they would support (like raising the property tax rate by 3 mills or cutting the budget) if it were passed. If the ballot initiative were passed, city officials have said Kenai would lose about $1 million in revenue.
Eldridge said he does not support the repeal of the food tax. He pointed out that the city already started this fiscal year at a deficit, which he said was not good for the city. Repealing the tax would leave the city the option of increasing other taxes.
"I think we should expand the tax base by annexing more territory and bringing in new businesses," he said.
Swarner, likewise, does not support the repeal of the tax, citing the hit the city would take to its income.
"Where's that (money) going to come from?" she said. "Are we going to stop plowing?"
She added that if it is passed, she wants constituents to tell the council whether they would rather pay more in taxes and user fees or what they would like to lose in the city.
Aaronson was the only candidate to support repealing the tax.
"It's the right thing to do, people," he said. "We need to come in line with the rest of the country."
He said lower-income families are burdened by the tax, and he thinks city spending is out of control.
Bannock did not support the repeal of the tax, saying the city could do without the money for a few years, but could not do so without taking some measure to make up for that lost revenue.
"I think this is the goofiest idea to come across us in a while," he said.
When conflicts arise between commercial and residential landowners, candidates were asked who should get preference.
Swarner answered if the conflict involves code violations, it falls to the Planning and Zoning Commis-sion to hear the complaint.
"I don't think there is an easy answer to this," she said. "It's not an easy decision as a council member or as (a member of) a board of adjustments either."
Aaronson said the problem of conflicts between the two groups could be solved by concentrating a commercial district where people want it. If that were done, those conflicts would solve themselves, he said.
Both Bannock and Eldridge said neither group should get a preference. Each case should be looked at specifically and a decision should be made based on each particular area and individual properties, they said.
When asked about what their highest priorities related to public improvement and services should be, the candidates gave varied answers.
Aaronson said support of the library is a priority, as is creating a trail system for kids to use in the summer and winter to have fun.
Bannock said his five priorities have always been and will continue to be police, fire, roads, water and sewer.
"Without those five, nobody would want to live here," he said.
Eldridge said his priority is the coastal trail project.
Swarner's priority is for residents to get the best services the city can provide with the revenue generated from the mill rate.
"I think we need to be concerned with unfunded mandates from the state ... and low interest rates," she added. "Our budget is bare bones now. If we cut any more, services to you will be cut."
To the question of how they would revitalize commercial fishing and local processors, many candidates said there wasn't much the city could do.
Bannock supports keeping the property tax stable, as does Eldridge. Eldridge added that support of the Kenai Wild program is a good idea, as is doing public relations on behalf of the industry.
Aaronson, who said he grew up commercial fishing in Kenai, agreed that supporting the Kenai Wild program is a good idea.
"(We need to ) get property taxes in line with cities on the peninsula that are growing," he added "... Make Kenai a fun place to live. Happy people spend money."
Swarner said the city can provide needed infrastructure for fishing and processors, like water, sewer and transportation systems. The health of the Kenai River also should be considered, since the fish they catch and process come from the river, she said.
The final question asked candidates what their views on illegal drugs were, since police are concerned their use is increasing in Kenai, and what could be done about the drug problem.
"(As for illegal drugs) don't do it," Eldridge said. He also advocated continuing surveillance, detecting areas that the drugs come from and cracking down on them, he said.
Swarner said she supports the police department, in the budget, in their continued education and in the their public service programs.
Aaronson's answer was to give the kids in town a fun place to live, perhaps by creating snowmachine trails behind the airport.
"We are very fortunate to not have a visible drug problem on the street," he said.
Bannock took a different view of the problem.
"What is sad is the problem that we do have in our neighborhoods," he said, adding that he would continue to support the police department and the work it does until the problem is remedied.
The general election is Oct. 1. Next week's Kenai Chamber of Commerce luncheon will feature candidates for Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor.
The following week, the chamber lunch will be canceled, due to Sept. 11 remembrance activities.
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