Homer chamber holds assembly candidate forum

Kelly Cooper and Heath Smith discussed issues

Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly hopefuls Kelly Cooper and Heath Smith met again last Wednesday, Sept. 20 at Kachemak Bay Campus for a candidate forum hosted by the Homer Chamber of Commerce. Moderated by the chamber board of directors president Michael Daniel, the forum was also streamed on Zoom and broadcast live on KBBI AM890.

A longtime Homer resident and local business owner, Cooper has served twice on the assembly as president, as well as serving on the chamber board and the Operating Board for South Peninsula Hospital.

“I’m running for assembly because I always look at the work that the assembly does as the foundation. When you’re building a house, you have to have a really good foundation,” she said during her opening statement at Wednesday’s forum. “The city of Homer is the house, it’s on top of it. That’s our heart and home. So the work that we do at the assembly is critically important.”

Lifelong Alaskan Heath Smith previously served on the Homer City Council for six years.

“My whole hope here is to go to the next level and to learn more in how we can best serve the people that we’re elected to serve,” he said in his opening statement. “The Kenai Peninsula has been my backyard my entire life, and I care about it. I’m here to serve, and I think that I have plenty to offer.”

Daniel asked both candidates a series of “open-ended” questions about current issues relevant to the Homer community and economy.

Smith and Cooper agreed, when asked about property tax exemptions, that the existing system didn’t need many, if any, changes.

“The exemptions that we have are good. I’m not looking at targeting any of those things,” Smith said.

“I know there are some programs at the state level that I’d like to have them change to statutes so we can offer exemptions for agricultural properties,” Cooper said. “But I’m really happy about existing exemptions.”

Regarding the Homer harbor expansion plan, both candidates expressed their support for the project’s continuation.

“We are situated perfectly to be the primary second port for the state of Alaska,” Cooper said. “There was a glitch on the study funding … we all have to get together at the city, borough, state and federal level to get that funding done so we can move that project along.”

Smith, who was part of the project’s jump-start when he served on city council, called the expansion an “investment into our community (that) will return tenfold.”

“We’re either all in, or not in at all,” he said. “I am absolutely a supporter of the project, and will do what I can to have the borough be in the same line.”

Daniel asked the candidates their thoughts on whether more borough land should be made available for development, and what kind of development they would like to see. Both stated that as much land as possible should be made available to the public. Cooper also noted that the borough should “find a way to let the public know better” when parcels are made available, and that she’d be interested in looking at ways to help with financing.

Regarding their stances on business development and the balance of growth with concerns about growing too quickly, both candidates suggested that was a conversation to be had with the community.

“Who determines what ‘too quickly’ is? I think that’s an open conversation,” Smith said.

“It’s important we include all community members (in that conversation),” Cooper said. “We have to work together and make regulations not so tight that people can’t keep a business going, but at the same time we have to be able to offer the services that are required for our young families and seniors and everyone in between.”

Daniel asked the candidates their ideas for fostering partnerships between local schools, businesses, and community organizations to enhance opportunities for students to encourage local youth to stay in the community after graduation.

“Sometimes it’s not about staying after graduation, it’s about them coming back. I don’t want to penalize those kids that want to go out and experience and bring that experience back to the state — that can be very beneficial,” Smith said. “I think promoting using our college system locally and in-state is important because those things will suit some of our students. But I think we need to find ways to encourage people to go out, expand their worldview, and come back and contribute in different ways.”

Cooper suggested funding and putting more focus on vocational programs, citing KBC’s certified nursing assistant program as an example.

“We need to put money in education and have good-paying jobs for kids to be able to come back and afford to live here,” she said.

Daniel also presented questions from the audience, the first asking the candidates’ views on how the borough might play a leading role in addressing the current opioid crisis.

“We as a borough have to have beds for recovery and treatment,” Cooper said. “Currently we have a huge shortage.”

“Treatment is one of the most available things, but it’s really the transition back into the community and having the housing and continued recovery aspect that needs to be in place,” Smith said. “The borough being part of that is something I would support.”

Another audience question asked if the borough had any role in regulating short-term rentals, a “hot topic” in the Homer area, as well as other tourist destinations, with the ongoing housing crisis.

“No, they do not,” Cooper said. “The only role that we have is the local option zoning. So if you are in a community where you want to mandate what can be done on your property, then you as a neighborhood can get together and do the local option zoning. I would love to come up with a solution for some longer, year-round housing, and the borough could release some land, but … I don’t think it’s our place to get in there and dictate whether you can have a short-term rental.”

“Yeah I agree, the borough doesn’t really have a role there,” Smith said. “The biggest (housing) problems exist in Seward and Homer, and I know the city of Homer has entertained some zoning approaches to try to discourage certain uses of their properties, but … I become concerned when the government wants to try to interject itself into a marketplace and it could artificially affect that.”

Another audience question asked whether local option zoning was an effective process to deal with land use issues.

“I think currently it is, because as a second-class borough we have zoning authority, but we can’t do spot zoning,” Cooper said. “The local option zoning is a great way to go, outside of the city limits, so we have a say in how regulated our community is going to be.”

Smith noted that local option zoning is a useful way to address the diversity of communities within the borough.

“If the borough were to tackle zoning in general, it would be a nightmare,” he said. “So the local option zoning is the perfect avenue to have people come together where they live and make decisions that impact them in the best ways.”

The conversation turned to the relationship between the economy and the environment, with drilling and extraction of oil and gas within the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

“Interestingly, gas production in the upper Cook Inlet is declining, and they’re taking more every year out of reserves here for the last several years. So there’s some serious concern about whether the production in the upper Cook Inlet is going to keep up with the demand,” Smith said. “We have to be mindful of what we do and be responsible stewards of the earth and use a process that shows that what we’re doing is responsible. The Nikiski pipeline is something we really need to keep focusing on because for Alaska in general, it’s something that’s going to benefit us in the long run.”

Cooper had a somewhat different idea.

“No matter how unpopular it is or where you are in the state, we have to look at renewables,” she said. “And here’s what I can tell you — the oil companies have had renewables in their strategic plan for decades. Now we all know we can’t just turn the switch and say ‘OK, we’re done, we’re just doing renewables.’ It’s that transition. We have many opportunities for supplementing our current energy usage with renewables to be good stewards of the earth.”

The candidates were asked their top legislative priorities. Both listed the harbor expansion project and education.

In his closing statement, Smith said that his service is “rooted in what’s coming in the future.”

“My commitment to this community and to the borough at large is to be engaged,” he said.

“I don’t go into this election with an agenda,” Cooper said. “This election is important, and the only thing I ask is that you get people out to vote.”

The full recorded forum can be viewed on the Homer Chamber of Commerce website at www.homeralaska.org/chamber/candidate-forum/.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Regular Election will take place on Tuesday, Oct. 3. Polling places are open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.