Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly candidates Willy Dunne and Troy Jones met at noon Monday at the Best Western Bidarka Inn in the only election forum for the District 9 seat now held by Dunne. Dunne seeks re-election for the seat that represents most of the lower peninsula outside of Kachemak City and Homer City limits.
Sponsored by the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, the assembly candidates had been scheduled to speak on Sept. 25 in a forum at Alice’s Champagne Palace to include District 31 Rep. Paul Seaton, NP-Homer, and Republican Party challenger Sarah Vance. The forum was canceled after objections over the location by the District 31 Republican Party.
Although the assembly race is nonpartisan, the Republican Party supports Jones. Dunne identifies himself as nonpartisan.
In the one-hour forum, each candidate was given a chance to introduce himself, answer questions posed by moderator Joni Wise and give closing remarks.
A retired fisheries biologist, Dunne also has worked as a park ranger, a commercial fisherman and a mariner. A 31-year Homer area resident, Dunne first built a cabin near McNeil Canyon and now lives on Waterman Road. He described serving the community through volunteer work with organizations like the Kachemak Bay State Parks Advisory Board, McNeil Canyon Elementary School Site Council, KBBI Public Radio and Kachemak Heritage Land Trust.
“From my first days on the Kenai Peninsula I was moved to participate in the community,” Dunne said. “… I do believe our civic duty is to give back for a healthy and functioning community.”
Jones, also an East End Road area resident, said he first came to Alaska with his family in 1956 when they homesteaded at the head of Kachemak Bay. A member of the Peninsula Horseman’s Association, Jones has worked as a big game guide. In 1990 he started East Road Services, and now employs 10 people, including two of his sons, now co-owners.
“I really like the local community. We have a community that’s strong in volunteering. We have been a recipient of that,” Jones said, referring to when his house burned down in 1996 and more than 125 volunteers showed up to help them rebuild.
“…The people of Homer are exceptional, devoted, loving, giving people,” he said.
Jones said he decided to run for the assembly because he had seen things increase in cost.
“I think at this time it’s time for me to step up and see what I can do to lead the community in a direction that’s beneficial for business, beneficial for young families and hold the line on taxes,” he said.
In the first question, Wise asked the candidates what they saw as the biggest challenge faced by the borough.
“I do believe the biggest challenge is providing top-quality education to our children and how to sustain that,” Dunne said.
The school district has a $50 million budget, with about $30 million in sales taxes supporting it. That means the borough has to come up with $20 million from other sources to balance the budget.
“We can’t continue cutting budgets in a way that harms our children,” Dunne said.
Jones said, “The biggest challenge the borough faces is balancing the budget without continuing to raise taxes.”
He said he would encourage new businesses, new enterprises and new training in trades.
“We can make a community where young families live here, but we have to watch the budget,” Jones said.
One way to increase revenue would be to sell off land the borough has already subdivided, he suggested.
In answer to the second question, “What do you feel is the greatest barrier to business growth and development in Homer?” Jones talked about organizations like the Homer Hockey Association and the Kachemak Shellfish Growers Association that had built programs through volunteer work.
“One of the businesses that is really thriving here is boat building, whether it is in the Old Believer villages or here in town,” Jones said.
Dunne said, “Businesses need a stable and predictable way to predict the coast of doing business. Stable and predictable taxes will help the borough plan growth.”
The borough needs “new and innovative revenue sources,” Dunne said.
With the voters defeating ideas like a gradual reduction in the $300,000 senior property tax exemption or raising the cap on the amount of sales that can be taxed, that leaves raising the property tax mill rate as the only way to close the budget gap, Dunne said.
In response to the question of his two top priorities, Dunne said, “Education is the top priority for me. Another priority is to eliminate deficit spending.”
Jones answered, “We have to balance the budget. We have to live on what’s coming in. We can’t keep raising the taxes. We must live within our means.”
Jones noted how in the Matanuska-Susitna and Fairbanks North Star Boroughs, the cost per student is about $3,000. In the Kenai, the cost is $5,666 a student.
“If the Mat-Su and Fairbanks North Star can put a kid through school for $3,000, we’ve got a problem,” he said.
In his closing comments later, Dunne noted that the per-student cost for the Kenai Peninsula Borough is more expensive because the borough has remote schools like Tyonek, Port Graham, Seldovia, Nanwalek and Kachemak Selo.
When asked how the borough can better support Homer businesses, Jones said, “You focus on the training, the young people that are coming up. Encourage business by reducing regulation, making a business atmosphere to make it possible for new businesses to start up.”
Dunne said, “It seems like Homer is pretty optimistic. I see a new hotel going in. I see new subdivisions going in.”
He also said the borough should encourage commercial energy efficiency and use of renewable energy to help reduce costs for businesses.
On the final question of what they saw as opportunities to reduce spending, Dunne said the borough could look at things like efficiencies in operations and costs. Some departments could be merged. The central peninsula solid waste disposal landfill could tap methane gas.
“The fact is we can’t cut our way to prosperity,” Dunne said. “… We certainly need to tighten our belts, but reducing spending is not going to cut our entire deficit.”
In response, Jones said, “I know you can’t tax your way to prosperity. The largest expenditure is the schools. We have to take a look at that.”
Jones acknowledged that criticizing school spending might not be politically wise. “We have to,” he said. “You’re welcome to your own opinion but not your own facts.”
In final comments, Jones said, “If you do vote for me I promise you I will work with the mayor and other assembly men to bring a reasonable solution to the problems we face in the borough. Those solutions are going to have to look at ways to cut and ways to increase revenue apart from taxation.”
Dunne said solutions needed to be more thoughtful.
“I think you all agree that we benefit from having representatives who can engage in critical thinking skills and apply those,” Dunne said. “Just saying taxes are bad budget cuts are good is simplistic. Without examining the impacts and long term consequences it can result in harmful, misguided policies. We all need to engage in thoughtful, rational discussion about all ideas brought to the table.”
Reach Michael Armstrong at firstname.lastname@example.org.