Voters told the municipal government Oct. 4 they were not looking for business as usual and acted to curb the borough's ability to spend money. That's the new financial reality the winner of the Oct. 25 runoff election for borough mayor will face, the two remaining candidates told a Kenai Chamber of Commerce audience Wednesday.
"The voters have spoken. They are very dissatisfied with the operations of the borough," said John Williams, for 18 years mayor of the city of Kenai. "They want a slimmed-down government. That's probably what we are going to have to go after."
He said the first budget he'd present if elected would have to start with an $8 million deficit. He said the mayor would have to know how to handle such numbers, something he's done at the local level.
"Most candidates were not in favor" of Proposition 5, which capped the sales tax rate at 2 percent, said John Torgerson, a two-term Alaska Senate member who also served on the borough assembly. "The voters don't want the status quo. They want lean and mean. They want less government and don't want their taxes to go up. We do have to look at reducing the borough government, and it won't be an easy chore."
Torgerson and Williams emerged from a six-man field Oct. 4 and must compete in a runoff election in two weeks. Neither came close to the vote total (50 percent , plus one vote) necessary to have won outright. However, Torgerson who enjoyed broader name recognition and garnered more financial support during his campaign, got about 35 percent to Williams' 25 percent.
If elected, Williams pro-mised to sit down with his transition team, the assembly and the current administration and "examine every facet of the borough." He said he's already asked for a list of anything that can be cut or deferred.
"I will freeze all unencumbered grants" and review them, Torgerson said. promising to curtail "big-ticket" purchases where possible. "We will create a litmus test ... to make sure we get the best bang for our buck."
Torgerson said he had plenty of experience handling big budgets, pointing to his two years as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, which reviewed $6 billion state budgets and than had to sell them to 59 other members of the Legislature.
Williams said that was one difference between his opponent and himself.
"Local government budgets are far different from state budgets. We don't have supplemental appropriations to come back for when we fall short," he said.
Asked how they intend to fund education to the cap (limits imposed on local contributions by state and federal law) as the borough traditionally has, both said it would be a difficult challenge.
Williams said it is hard to say just how that would be done without seeing the entire budget.
"We are going to try to protect education as much as we can," he said.
"Education will be our number one priority," Torgerson said.
The school district is likely to have to tighten its belt, he added, and that might even include consolidating schools if they are not successful at reducing the budget.
Williams, who helped launch the Kenai Peninsula Economic Development District, said he would have to look hard at keeping the borough's Division of Community and Economic Development.
"We can't afford $400,000 to $500,000 in duplicate services," he said.
Torgerson said he intends to eliminate the DCED entirely, but bring some of its elements back into the administration.
"I would look to shut it down," he said.
Torgerson described his management style as "hard but fair," and said he did not expect a cakewalk working with the assembly, but did note his experience as a problem-solver.
Williams said he knows all the assembly members, including the new ones, personally and expects a good working relationship with them if elected. He said he'd take a team approach to managing.
Torgerson promised to travel the borough a lot to hear from constituents. Williams said he would do the same, but also suggested once-a-month radio spots. He proposed a peninsula mayor's caucus.
Torgerson said he would use his transition team and rely on department heads to begin with, saying an assistants position could be expensive. He did not rule it out, however. Williams said he would hire an assistant, saying the job was too big to do without one.
Both said they would not pull any funding from the Arctic Winter Games.
Torgerson said his experience at both the local and state level would give him an advantage in intergovernmental affairs, which could be good for the borough.
Williams said his experience at the local level would benefit the borough most.
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