Williams takes stock

New borough mayor faces fiscal challenges

Posted: Wednesday, November 23, 2005


  Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams talks to Robert B. Stiles and Bill Popp about the Chuitna coal project earlier this week. Williams has been occupied with the borough┐s economic picture since taking office earlier this month. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams talks to Robert B. Stiles and Bill Popp about the Chuitna coal project earlier this week. Williams has been occupied with the boroughs economic picture since taking office earlier this month.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Editor’s note: This is the first of a three-part series in which the Clarion will present Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams’ initial assessment of the state of the borough as he begins to put his administration together.

Like dishes cascading from a cupboard during an earthquake: that’s how John Williams described the shower of critical issues demanding his immediate attention during his first 10 days as Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor.

“You almost can’t stop the avalanche of work that’s falling onto my desk on a daily basis,” he said during an interview Thursday while on a visit to the Homer area, one of many stops on a multiday tour of borough communities.

Just trying to prioritize the problems — most of which have the borough’s fiscal crunch at their cores — has been more like hitting the wall running than the ground.

“And searching for a door,” he said. “Every day it’s been a new challenge.”

The delay forced on his administration by the necessity of a runoff election meant taking the reins Nov. 7, not mid-October, as would have been the case had he won on Oct. 4 outright.

His first day on the job found him not in his Soldotna office, but in Anchorage at the Alaska Municipal League mayor’s association meeting. Three day’s later he was back in the big city to sign the Tri-Borough Commission agreement linking the borough with Anchorage and Mat-Su in a cooperative association.

“Since then, I’ve been visiting up and down the borough,” he said. “I’ve been in Ninilchik and Kasilof, then back to Kenai. Today I’m down here (in Homer) for a couple of meetings. I’ll be back down on Monday for the (South Peninsula) hospital hearing. I’m in Seward tomorrow.

“We’re covering the whole borough.”

Despite the hectic schedule, priorities are being set. Topping that list? That’s no surprise.

“Money!” he said emphatically. “That’s the most important thing right now.”

A package of ideas — including possible cuts and revenue enhancements — already has been sent to the Finance Department, he said. They’ve been tasked with “adding what is necessary and applicable” and returning a bottom-line number in 30 days.

“We need to do that because very shortly, in December, we begin the next budget process. We have to have a handle on that,” Williams said.

Then, he added, it will be a matter of scrutinizing borough expenses with an eye toward savings — everything from assessing personnel costs, reconsidering purchases large and small, possibly rolling back appropriated funds and reviewing various contracts — all the things that will make the fiscal pieces come together.

It isn’t likely to be easy. Last week, Williams told the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly that if things proceeded unchecked, the borough would go from having an annual fund balance (the borough’s working capital) of around $12 million to $15 million to $5 million in the red by the end of his term as mayor.

“We picked $5 million because that seemed to be the midpoint between the highest and lowest of the numbers given to us,” Williams said. “We have not yet arrived at a fixed number that we can insert into the next budget or even into this one (FY 2006) as an amended budget, because we haven’t fully gotten a grasp on how many cuts we can make. There are some actual cuts that will be made in this budget.”

Meeting that challenge will require a detailed plan of attack, one Williams has promised to make transparent to the electorate. He acknowledged his administration has some things to prove to the residents of the borough.

“One is that we are competent enough to do this,” he said. “And two, that our plan is a good one for the long term. That’s what creates credibility in government.”

He isn’t flying solo, however. He has put together a 21-person transition team that includes his chief of staff, former assembly member and campaign director Tim Navarre, former state lawmaker Ken Lancaster, and Bill Popp, hired by former Mayor Dale Bagley to serve as liaison to the oil and gas — and now mining — industries. Popp, Williams said, has agreed to remain on the job in the new administration.

“We’ve brought with us more depth (of experience) in local government than any transition team in the history of the borough,” Williams said. “Not only is there an understanding of government, but all four of us have worked together for years on other projects. It’s not like we have a bunch of people trying to get used to one another at the same time they’re trying to get used to a new job.”

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