What role should the government play in growth?

Posted: Friday, November 17, 2006

When it comes to the economy, Alaskans generally talk about the big three: oil, commercial fishing and tourism. Government’s role as an employer is largely ignored, even though its impact on communities throughout Alaska is huge. As state economists Neal Fried and Brigitta Windisch-Cole note in the October issue of “Alaska Economic Trends,” with more than 40,000 jobs generated by local government, it is the state’s single largest “industry employer.”

Lest people associate government jobs only with bureaucracy, Fried and Windisch-Cole note that “local government employs a wide range of occupations requiring all levels and kinds of skills.” Local government jobs include teachers, police officers, firefighters, laborers, administrators, librarians, nurses, bus drivers, secretaries, water and waste treatment plant operators — just to name a few. The 50 largest local government entities in Alaska in 2005 included the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District (No. 5 with 1,286 employees); Central Peninsula General Hospital in Soldotna (No. 16 with 405 employees); the Kenai Peninsula Borough (No. 17 with 388 employees); Homer’s South Peninsula Hospital (No. 21 with 256 employees); the city of Kenai (No. 45 with 115 employees); the city of Homer (No. 47 with 110 employees); and the city of Seward (No. 49 with 106 employees).

No. 1 on the list is the Anchorage School District with 6,539 employees. Ranking No. 50 is the Kenaitze Indian Tribe with 104 employees.

It’s easy to see that local government plays a significant role in the economy by virtue of the number of people it employs, but several questions surface in thinking about local government and its role in the economy: Can and should local government do more to generate employment in the private sector? If so, just what should local government’s role be? What exactly, if anything, do we expect local government to do? Are there things local government can do to fan the flames of entrepreneurship?

The Kenai Peninsula’s awesome views and laid-back lifestyle may attract people to the area, but are they enough to keep them here? Trend watchers are keeping a wary eye on the shift in the area’s demographics: fewer students in schools, more retirees. Can young adults find the kind of jobs — with good pay and good benefits — that will allow them to raise families here? Can local government provide a catalyst to create those kinds of jobs?

Keeping the peninsula’s charm, character and beauty doesn’t have to be — and shouldn’t be — synonymous with “no growth allowed.” Of course, having it all will take planning. That planning should include community discussions on how different areas can grow and diversify their economy. Not because bigger is better, but because if an area wants to be more than a retirement community, fishing village or tourist destination, it must make purposeful decisions that will create opportunities for those wanting to put down roots.

A beautiful place to live without enough good jobs to support the families who want to live on the peninsula and contribute their talents to the greater good becomes more of a showpiece than a community with substance.

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