Kenai residents may not have had a full menu of choices for their lunch at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce's meeting Wednesday, but they did have a full panel of candidates running for city council to choose from. The eight candidates running for three open seats presented their views to the crowd gathered at the chamber's weekly luncheon at Paradisos.
Three candidates are running for a two-year seat John "Ozzie" Osborne, the incumbent, faces challengers Blaine Gilman and James Jenckes. Five candidates are seeking the two, three-year seats up for grabs the incumbents Amy Jackman and Pat Porter, as well as Carol Brenckle, Barry Eldridge and Rick Ross. The election is Tuesday.
Most topics boiled down to economics.
Candidates were asked several financial questions what they would direct the city's economic development director to work on, what they consider to be the major economic issue facing the city in the coming years and how that issue should be addressed and how they plan to balance the budget.
On some questions, several candidates agreed. For economic development, Jackman, Ross, Porter, Osborne and Eldridge all suggested talking with businesses that did move to the area and others that didn't to determine why they did or did not come to town and whether the city should make any changes to make itself more attractive to businesses.
The future health of the oil and gas industry was the main economic concern for Jenckes, Eldridge, Porter, Gilman and Ross, who all favor supporting the construction of a natural gas pipeline to the Kenai Peninsula.
On the budget, restricting capital spending was a centerpiece for most candidates' plans to balance the budget.
Other ideas came out in the discussion as well.
Brenckle said she would like the economic development director to work with the chamber of commerce to bring new business to the area and for the city to support the construction of a therapeutic school for youths where they could be treated for mental health and-or substance abuse problems.
The major issue of concern to her in Kenai's future is developing a sustainable economy. Oil and gas, though important, are nonrenewable resources, she pointed out, whereas tourism is a renewable source of revenue. Brenckle suggested holding a Kenaitze-Russian heritage festival to attract more visitors.
As for the budget, she is for balancing it and putting a percentage of the city's revenues back into its savings. If elected, Brenckle vowed to listen to citizens.
"It's all about responsive government, about responsible government," she said. "I believe the citizens of Kenai are our most important resource, bar none."
For economic development, Eldridge recommended marketing the city more and reviewing zoning codes to make sure they are in line with the goals for the future laid out in the city's comprehensive plan.
Along with the oil and gas industry, the bluff erosion stabilization project and retail development also are important issues facing the city, Eldridge said. As for the budget, Eldridge is not in favor of raising the mill rate. He would rather see the city get more retail businesses to increase the sales tax revenues and look into annexation.
Gilman said the airport is the most valuable commodity in the city and should be expanded. He also suggested studying the city's zoning code to see if any parts of it prohibit economic development and seeing if any other industries could locate in the city.
A natural gas pipeline is important to the area, as is asking the state for more money for education, Gilman said.
"The school situation may keep some families and private companies from coming to this area," he said.
Gilman suggested looking for less expensive ways for the city to provide services, like outsourcing them, in order to balance the budget.
As well as talking to businesses, Jackman said the city's administration should work on streamlining the processes new businesses have to go through to come into the city to make the city more friendly.
The health of the oil, gas and fishing industries as well as retail businesses in the city are all important issues facing the future of Kenai, Jackman said.
"I don't think there is any one area that makes up a healthy community," she said. "... You can't just say you're going to focus on one thing and fix everything."
She said the retail base in the city is growing, so she suggested just letting it grow while reigning in spending to keep the budget in line.
Jenckes' main thrust for economic development is stimulating retail development in the city. He said the city should maintain a high quality of life here and entice new businesses to boost the city's revenues.
In terms of the budget, Jenckes said, other than keeping spending down, there aren't any major problems to fret about right now, especially since Home Depot is opening a store.
"I don't think there's anything we need to get real excited with right at the moment," he said.
Osborne's idea for economic development is that the city should market itself more. Bringing more retail business into the city to generate more sales tax revenues is important to him, and to the city's future, he said.
"(If not from sales taxes) that money is going to have to come from property taxes and I don't want to tax people out of the city," he said.
Like Jenckes', Osborne's budget plan is to cut back on capital projects and wait for the economy to improve.
Porter said the economic development director should continue working on holding a town hall meeting with business people in the community to see what their ideas for development are.
Along with oil and gas issues, the tourism and fishing industries are important issues facing the future of the city, Porter said. If those areas are promoted, retail business will grow on its own, she said.
On the topic of the budget, Porter said it has pretty much stabilized, and suggested surveying the residents of Kenai to find out what they would like the council to do.
"We need to ask our citizens what services do you really want and what will you be willing to pay for them," she said.
The future of the oil and gas industry was Ross' choice of big economic issues facing the city. He said the city should push for the gas pipeline as well as insist on developing local resources.
Ross said he believes the city can live within its means and have a balanced budget if capital projects are put off until the economy can support them.
"I believe there's no reason to raise revenues or cut services," he said. "In a few years we'll have the fund balance built up."
Candidates also were asked to comment on the controversial Kenai Recreation Center issue. All said they wanted the center back open, but some had different ideas on how to do that.
Brenckle said the center should be opened immediately and be run by city employees to at least break even or even make a profit. She chastised the city's administration's and current council's handling of the issue so far, saying they haven't listened to the wishes of city residents.
Eldridge said the city should continue the process started by the current council, whereby the city is soliciting a Request for Qualifications from groups interested in running the center and will choose the most qualified and cost-effective from those.
Gilman said he favors outsourcing the management of city facilities, including the rec center, to save the city money. He supports an outside group managing the center, so long as it can provide the same quality of services the city did at a lower cost, he said.
Jackman said she has been concerned from the beginning that the city and council were moving too fast on the issue and not exploring it as well as it should. She, likewise, said she wanted the center open as soon as possible.
Jenckes said the city has money available that can be moved around to pay for employees, even if they are temporary, to open the center immediately. He did not elaborate on how much money is available or form where it can be taken. After it is open, Jenckes said the Kenai Parks and Recreation Commission should work out a plan for the center's future operation, whether the management is outsourced or kept in the city.
Osborne recommended opening the center immediately with city employees.
Porter and Ross had similar answers. Both recommended seeing if there was a qualified group that could run the center and provide the same level of services that the city did at a lower cost. If that isn't possible, the center should be run by city employees, though probably with reduced hours and services since the city can't afford to operate it to the level it once did. Porter added that she wants whoever runs the Teen Center to be qualified and experienced at working with kids.
At the end of the forum, Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, in town for the dedication of the Judge Jonathan H. Link Atrium at the Kenai Courthouse and Gottschalks' new store opening, greeted the audience and offered some encouragement to the forum participants.
"You can be proud of these candidates," he told the crowd.
Leman said he sympathized with the candidates about how difficult these forums can be, having participated in many himself.
"I certainly enjoyed my lunch more as a spectator than as a participant," he said.
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