Mayoral candidates discuss spending, taxes

Posted: Wednesday, September 07, 2005

How to manage a tight budget, cut spending, promote economic development, prepare for disasters and deal with the possible fallout from a successful ballot initiative that would cap the sales tax were among the topics discussed Tuesday by candidates seeking the Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor's job.

The six, former Kenai Mayor John Williams, former state lawmaker John Torgerson, current Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly President Gary Superman, current assistant to the mayor Ed Oberts — along with two peninsula residents who have not previously held public office, Fred Sturman and Ray VinZant — answered questions at Tuesday's Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon held at the Soldotna Sports Center.

Asked what the biggest problem facing the borough was, Oberts said it was finding a way to continue local funding for education. Oberts praised recent increases to schools approved by state lawmakers, but said the borough sales tax increase set to go into effect Jan. 1 was a part of the solution.

However, Ballot Proposition 5 would reverse the 1 percent sales tax increase and cap the sales tax at 2 percent. Further, it would require that future increases to the sales tax be approved by no less than 60 percent of the voting public.

Noting that borough revenues are bringing in somewhat more than expected, Oberts said that, if elected, he would move to cut the increase — presuming Prop 5 fails — to just half a percent, increasing the current 2-percent tax to 2.5 percent. Oberts also said he would vote against Proposition 5.

VinZant said the biggest problems was "always the budget," adding that the borough "has no established pattern of supervision" over spending.

"I'll try to figure out how the (government) divisions can work with less money," he said.

He declined to say how he would vote on Proposition 5, but did say there was no way to deal with a shortfall in the short term.

"We have to figure out how to keep from having shortfalls," he said.

Superman told the audience delivering services in a cost-effective manner was the top problem facing the borough. If Prop 5 passes, it could put the borough in crisis mode, he said.

"There would be tradeoffs," he said. "They'll be painful."

He said he would not support Proposition 5 and that the assembly had made the right call in passing an increase to the property tax.

Fred Sturman said money was always the biggest problem facing the borough. Part of today's dilemma, he added, has to do with the borough's obligation to the retirement systems for public employees and teachers. Estimates put that obligation over the next several years as high as $49 million.

"The ordinary taxpayer has to pay that," he said, though most private citizens don't enjoy the same benefits going to public retirees.

As for Proposition 5, Sturman was a co-sponsor of the initiative that led to the proposition getting on the ballot.

"I'll be proud to vote yes," he said.

Torgerson said he agreed that money and how to balance services with revenues was the major problem facing the borough. He said education was his top priority, but he added that he didn't want to discount other issues such as economic development.

As for Prop 5, Torgerson said he would be voting no. Its passage, however, would amount to a mandate to cut government spending, he said. But he also said there weren't any nonessential government services to cut beyond perhaps eliminating some duplication or combining operations, leaving the education budget as a possible target for savings.

Williams said the biggest problem was managing the budget regardless of the outcome on Proposition 5 because increased costs were likely to produce a deficit again next year in any case. He promised to freeze hiring, let attrition eliminate less-than-essential positions, and work to guarantee a good education for school children.

Williams said he would oppose Proposition 5, warning that it would create a $7 million gap in revenues that would have to be filled from somewhere. Cutting government services won't work, he said, though he promised incremental cuts. He noted that visitors contribute to borough revenues through sales taxes.

With Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath fresh on everyone's mind, the candidates were asked if they thought the borough was sufficiently prepared for natural disasters.

Superman said he supported the ongoing move to consolidate emergency services in a new facility to be built in Soldotna.

Oberts said the borough has a disaster plan, but that government doesn't have all the answers all the time, and encouraged people to have good family emergency plans.

VinZant said that as a Class 2 borough, the Kenai Peninsula cannot react as quickly as the state government.

Sturman said the government cannot take care of everyone, and that it "doesn't need to spend millions to protect everyone from everything."

Torgerson called the borough plan adequate insofar as it tells officials who to call in the event of a disaster. Response would require good coordination between the local government, the state and the national guard.

Williams warned the peninsula would experience a disaster at some point in time. Historically, it already has.

"I've been froze out, flooded out, shook out and burned out, and there's been a couple of volcanoes as well," he said. The borough management plan would work, he said, but the borough can't be prepared for every possible disaster. He said the new Soldotna facility would be an asset.

The candidates were asked if they supported the March 2006 Arctic Winter Games and whether they approved of borough money being spent on them.

"That's easy for me," Sturman said, adding that he supported the Games, but not the government spending.

Torgerson said he supported the Games and was prepared to live up to the borough's obligation to them.

Williams noted that the Games bring with them cultural events unavailable here and would increase the quality of life on the peninsula. He noted that Games organizers had been successful in raising most of the money they would require.

Oberts said just how big the Games will be sometimes gets lost in the debate over costs. Thousands of athletes and visitors will attend, he said, and any hotel, motel or bed and breakfast that wants to open in March would do good business.

VinZant said the Games were "excellent," and an opportunity for children.

"I've supported them since the inception," Superman said. "It brings culture to the community we've never seen before."

The candidates were also asked how the borough should respond to the rising cost of public employee and teacher retirement programs, commonly known by their acronym — PERS/TRS. Sturman said it was the borough's biggest problem and called on union members to take a hard look at the effect their retirement packages are having on taxpayers.

The other candidates mostly placed blame for the rising retirement costs squarely on the state. Oberts said the state had "dropped the ball." VinZant said he didn't know why retirement had been allowed to become such a major financial problem. Torgerson, Superman and Williams said it was time for the Legislature to act.

Asked if the borough should sell Central Peninsula General Hospital, all the candidates said no except VinZant who favored selling the hospital.

A question whether the borough should get into the nursing home business and buy Heritage House brought a universal no, though some candidates took the time to note the expected rapid increase in the senior population over the next 25 years and the growing need for medical services. Williams said the current 7,000 senior population could be expected to grow to 21,000 by around 2030.

Election day is Oct. 4. To win, a candidate must receive 50 percent of the vote plus one — a clear majority. Absent that, the two top vote-getters will compete for the mayor's job in a runoff election Oct. 25.

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