Voters carefully pick borough services they want to pay for

Posted: Sunday, October 10, 2004

What messages can be derived from the results of Tuesday's municipal election?

One certainly is that experience does matter when it comes to selecting people for public office. Voters rightly feel far more comfortable with the known than the unknown; they want elected officials with a track record of service.

Knowing that, elected officials with some experience under their belts should mentor others for community service. Under the current system, incumbents generally will be re-elected until they move on to higher office or they burn out or completely lose touch with those who put them in office. There's got to be a better way.

By the same token, those with an interest in serving their community in an elected position should seek out mentors whom they admire. There's no reason to wait to be elected before someone starts receiving a little on-the-job training. It's also a great way to sample if politics is truly one's cup of tea.

The borough, the school district and Kenai Peninsula cities also should consider hosting an annual workshop that would let interested people know about what kind of volunteer and elected opportunities are available, what kind of aptitude is suited to the positions available and how to broaden one's sphere of influence when it comes to community service.

Of course, attending borough assembly, school board and city council meetings is a great way to learn the issues, the system and ways to get involved before ever hitting the campaign trail. It's always surprising the number of candidates who file for office who have never attended a meeting of the body they are running for until election season approaches.

Just as job applicants need to have some basis for showing they are qualified for a particular job, candidates have more credibility if they have been active participants in the community.

Besides voters wanting experienced elected officials, borough voters also showed a desire to pay less in taxes and an inclination toward more streamlined government.

Voters overwhelming supported Proposition No. 1, which increases the property tax exemption the borough can offer from $10,000 to $20,000. While that will give taxpayers a slight bit of relief, it is expected to mean a loss of approximately $577,250 to the borough's general tax fund. That was troubling news before the election, it's even more troubling in light of last week's news that Unocal Corp. has told Agrium Corp. that it will be unable to supply quantities of natural gas specified in a July arbitration settlement.

The health of the borough's economy is closely tied to the health of its major industrial players, including Agrium and Unocal. If Agrium is unable to get the gas it needs, the future of its Nikiski plant is in jeopardy. And that means trouble not only for Agrium's employees but for the entire borough. A McDowell Group study shows how big a role Agrium plays in the borough economy: In 2002, the borough received $2.4 million in industrial property tax from Agrium, an estimated minimum of $212,700 in residential property tax from Agrium employees' homes and $1.4 million in state funding for Agrium workers' school-age children's education -- for a total of $4 million in direct revenue to the borough.

Voters may have taken the short view in approving Proposition No. 1 Tuesday. It will be interesting to see how they react if the borough is forced to raise property taxes or cut services to deal with any revenue shortfall.

While voters in Nikiski soundly nixed a police service area, voters in other areas of the borough strongly supported an expansion of firefighting services provided by Central Emergency Services. The conclusion: If voters see a need, they are willing to pay for it.

Nikiski voters, however, indicated there's a limit to what they are willing to pay for. While they rejected an effort to curtail the powers of the North Peninsula Recreation Service Area, they approved a proposal that lowers the amount of money the service area may spend on a capital improvement project without first going to the voters. The previous level had been $1.5 million; Tuesday's vote lowered that level to $500,000.

The North Peninsula Recreation Service Area board should be encouraged by the two votes. They can be interpreted as supporting the board's efforts to turn the old Nikiski Elementary School into a community center; voters just want a say in how and how much money is spent. In these uncertain financial times, that's not an unreasonable request.

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