In a Kenai Peninsula Borough mayoral candidate forum sponsored by the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center, Dale Bagley, Linda Farnsworth Hutchings and Charlie Pierce all distinguished themselves as capable candidates for the borough’s top administrative position.
As chamber executive director Debbie Speakman put it in her closing comments, “What we know for sure is we have three very qualified candidates running for mayor this year.”
Bagley, 53, of Soldotna currently serves on the borough assembly. From 1999-2005 he was borough mayor, elected to two 3-year terms. He started in public office in 1994 as a Soldotna City Council member, and then served on the assembly from 1995-98 before being elected mayor. Bagley enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after graduating from high school, and since 2004 he has been a Realtor.
“I have the experience, the knowledge to do this job,” he said.
Hutchings, 68, also of Soldotna, has the least political experience of the three, serving on the Alaska Workers Compensation Board in 2005 and 2017 and on the Soldotna Charter Commission in 2015-16. She currently is on the Soldotna Parks and Recreation Commission.
From a peninsula homesteading family, she is an accountant and has worked for 40 years for Hutchings Auto Group and is now chief financial officer. Hutchings cited her business experience as her chief qualification for mayor.
“I feel like being a business person, I know how to drill down into a budget and look for efficiencies,” she said.
Pierce, 58, also served on the borough assembly, from 2008-14. His family moved to Alaska in 1975, and after graduating from Bartlett High School in 1977, Pierce intended to learn to be a paramedic. Attending business school, he started working at ENSTAR Natural Gas to pay for classes.
From 1977-90 he worked with the Anchorage operations of ENSTAR and from 1990-2016 he was division manager of ENSTAR on the Kenai Peninsula. During his time at ENSTAR he oversaw the extension of the natural gas pipeline from Anchor Point to Homer and the build out of the line in the city of Homer and in borough service areas.
“You need a good manager to run our resources at this time,” Pierce said. “You need a good manager to be a generalist, not just to drill down into the budget, but to keep us through the next 10 years in the borough.”
Most of the forum’s questions dealt with the major issue facing the borough: How will the borough balance its budget in light of declining state revenues and support? Also on the ballot is borough Proposition 3, which would raise the sales tax cap from $500 to $1,000. The cap would stay at $500 for rentals. According to the fiscal note on the ballot question, that would generate from $2.9 to $3.1 million in additional revenues.
On the question of if the borough should seek additional revenues, Hutchings said she thought a borough deficit might not be as bad as some fear. If Prop 3 passes, that would help close the gap, she said.
“Everybody is getting worried and scared. I think we need to stop,” she said.
Bagley noted that in addition to the loss of state revenue sharing, the borough has taken other hits in revenue losses: the seasonal sales tax on groceries and increasing the personal homeowner exemption on property taxes to $50,000.
“Ultimately we need to find another source of revenue. It doesn’t have to be too drastic, but it has to be something,” Bagley said
Pierce said the solution to low revenues is expanding the economy.
“We do need a new infusion of new capital in our state. We need new opportunities for our young adults,” he said.
On the other side of balancing a budget, the candidates were asked how they would reduce the budget. Bagley suggested looking at items like travel. He also said he wants to look at energy efficiencies like converting to LED lights on borough properties.
Pierce advocated an approach corporations would take in reducing budgets, like process teams that look at tasks and production.
“A good manager looks at everything,” he said. “I bet there are things in the borough 50 years ago we’re still doing that way.”
Hutchings said she would apply her business experience in finding cost reductions.
“Believe me, I know about forecasting and budget. I know about drilling down,” she said.
On the question of their top priorities for the boroug if elected mayor, Bagley said his highest priority would be
fixing the budget.
“I think that’s an easy one,” he said. “Number two is working with the borough maintenance department.” “Health and education,” Pierce said.
The borough spends more time quibbling over nondepartmental items than it does about school spending — the major borough expense, he said.
“You say it’s about the kids. Let’s make it about the kids,” he said.
Hutchings agreed the budget is a big issue, “But again, the budget has been flat,” she said. “We are not blowing our money. We’re working very hard to be smart purchasers, not scaring anybody.”
High school student Ethan Gross asked the candidates what they would do for schools in the next 5 to 10 years and to help students like him get a good education. All three encouraged vocational and technical education in addition to college preparation.
“There are so many opportunities in oil and gas and mining and the medical field,” Hutchings said.
Pierce said voc-tech education sometimes gets forgotten. Not every graduate will go off to college, he said.
“We need to give them opportunities. … Let’s create an economy like we had before in Alaska,” he said.
Citizens also had the opportunity to write down questions to be read to the candidates. In response to a question on if the senior property tax exemption should be reduced from $300,000 to the state mandated $150,000, none of them favored revisiting that idea. They were more split on a visitor bed tax, an item considered by the assembly that did not advance.
Bagley said increasing the sales tax cap wasn’t his first choice in raising tax revenues and that he favored a bed tax over raising the cap.
Pierce said the borough should listen to the voters.
“Through the initiative process, they keep saying to the mayor and assembly, ‘Get your house in order,’” he said.
Hutchings said she thought a tourism tax is still an opportunity.
“It doesn’t affect you individually. It affects the tourists coming into the area,” she said.
On the matter of homeschooling, all three supported such programs, but differed on vouchers for parents to send students to private schools Pierce said he supported vouchers.
“Everyone needs options,” he said.
Hutchings said she opposes vouchers. Think about a single mom raising two kids, she said.
“She’s handed a voucher, but that’s not good for her because she can’t afford the difference,” Hutchings said. “But in this case, we’ve taken out a teacher.”
Bagley said he would have to see the particulars of a voucher program before making up his mind. The candidates also disagreed on how to protect homeowners from the impacts of oil and gas development.
“The problem is we do not have strong planning and zoning in the borough,” Hutchings said.
The borough does have local option zoning that could be used to protect homeowners, Bagley noted
There is a public process to address oil and gas development, Pierce said.
“I think industry and the environmental side related to those project can coexist,” he said.
The candidates also split on the matter of holding an invocation before borough assembly meetings. Pierce said he thought the current policy discriminates. Only spiritual leaders of groups with an established presence on the peninsula can lead an invocation. With the support of the American Civil Liberties Union – Alaska, several borough residents have sued to overturn the policy.
“You can’t discriminate,” Pierce said.
Hutchings also opposes the invocation.
“I take care of my spirituality before I come to the meeting. I don’t need an invocation,” she said.
Bagley voted for the invocation policy and said he supports it. The U.S. Supreme Court allows invocations, but the question is how it is managed.
“If they (the Alaska court) kick it back, we’ll look at it,” he said.
All three also support commercial cannabis in the borough.
“I support businesses that produce new tax revenue,” Pierce said.
“Do you want marijuana to be underground or do you want it to be controlled where you do have access to those tax dollars?” Hutchings asked.
Bagley said cannabis tax revenues will help balance local budgets.
“Otherwise, I’m trying to stay neutral,” he said. “At the end of the day, it seems wrong, but I can’t argue with the arguments the cannabis industry makes.”
Concerning nondepartmental budget items like the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council, all three said they would support it.
“That’s something every county does across the United States,” Bagley said. “The question is, how does the borough do it?”
Pierce said the borough should scrutinize those groups.
“That’s what a real manager does. They go in and check that they are, number one, achievable goals,” he said.
Hutchings also said she would support tourism marketing, but also the Kenai Peninsula College.
“It’s a big driver for the peninsula,” she said.