Deficit talk dominates debate

Borough mayor candidates spar over 'conservative' credibility

Posted: Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Both John Torgerson and John Williams say dealing with a potential budget deficit of more than $9 million will be their top priority if elected borough mayor.

"This is a time to reinvent government," Torgerson told the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce at a debate held Tuesday at the Riverside House.

"It's going to be very tough," Williams said.

With a runoff election just one week away, both candidates did their best to convince undecided voters that their particular management style is best to pull the borough out of its looming financial crisis.

Williams, who served as Kenai's mayor for 18 years before stepping down last year, said his experience dealing with the city's budget makes him the best man for the job.

"We didn't have any debt when I left (Kenai) and we had $34 million in cash," he said.

Torgerson, a two-term Alaska senator member who also served on the borough assembly, said his first order of business if elected would be to convene a transition team to look at the big picture and come up with areas where money can be saved.

"By the first of January, we'll have our review of the departments done," he said.

Both candidates likely will be forced to cut the budget when elected, and Torgerson said he'd be the best at doing such, saying his background would make him better at the job.

"I'm more conservative than my opponent," he said.

Williams, who finished second to Torgerson in the general election earlier this month, bristled at the suggestion that his opponent would take a harder line on spending.

"You can't beat the conservative way we ran the city of Kenai," he said.

The main difference be-tween their styles, Williams said, is that he would take a more team-oriented approach to solving the borough's financial problems, while Torgerson would be more into micromanaging things.

"The captain steers the ship better from the bridge, not down in the engine room," he said.

Torgerson fired back that he has not committed to hiring a full-time assistant once in office simply because he wants to look at all aspects of the budget before making any commitments.

"I'm not going to start cutting the budget by hiring people," he said.

Both candidates agreed their first order of business would be to cut the borough's Community and Economic Development Division. Torgerson said he also would cut the position of oil and gas liaison, while Williams said he's not sure if that position will remain in place or be absorbed into his administrative duties.

While most of the discussion focused on how to cut spending, one audience question dealt with growing the economy.

Torgerson said his main objectives will be to continue to push to increase existing industry forward, while also looking for money to support tourism.

"Hopefully, we'll be able to find money to continue tourism marketing," Torgerson said.

Williams pointed to the area's growing senior citizen population as a potential market for industry to grow around.

"Our senior population is growing all the time," Williams said.

How to sell more borough land also was brought up during the debate. Williams did not comment on how he'll increase the amount of land the borough sells, but he did say he's "100 percent" in favor of an upcoming ballot initiative that would create a permanent fund in which to deposit proceeds from borough land sales.

"If you sell land and save the money ... we're a lot better off," he said.

Torgerson said he'll try to encourage new land sales by making the process for land to get to market easier.

"I'm working on a process to speed up land sales," he said.

Both candidates said they'll do everything they can to protect education funding, and both noted that state funding levels will be key to getting education funded into the future. They also said they'll lobby the Legislature hard to get the borough's per-pupil allotment raised.

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