Candidates for the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Homer assembly seat and Borough Mayor Peter Micciche gathered last Thursday in the Homer Public Library to talk about their bid for public office and issues facing borough voters as part of a candidate forum hosted by the Peninsula Clarion, KDLL 91.9 FM and KBBI 890 AM public radio.
The forum, hosted in partnership with the Central Peninsula League of Women Voters and the Homer Public Library, was the fourth of eight being held throughout September heading into the Oct. 3 municipal election.
Over the course of about an hour, candidates fielded questions from forum moderators Ashlyn O’Hara, the Peninsula Clarion’s government and education reporter, and Kathleen Gustafson, host and producer at KBBI.
Participating in Thursday’s forum were incumbent Mayor Peter Micciche, who is running unopposed for reelection, as well as Kelly Cooper and Heath Smith, who are running for the Homer assembly seat. The Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor, as well as whoever is elected to the assembly’s Homer seat, will serve a three-year term.
A separate forum with candidates for the assembly’s Kenai, Nikiski and Sterling seats was held Sept. 11 in Soldotna.
Heath Smith is a longtime Homer resident who served on the Homer City Council for six years and has worked for UPS for 26 years. Kelly Cooper is a former Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly president who currently serves on the Kachemak City Council and owns Coop’s Coffee in Homer.
The forum kicked off with a question about the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s emergency alert system, with specific focus on mixed messages Homer residents received from various agencies during a tsunami warning in July.
Micciche called the four most recent deployments of Homer’s tsunami sirens “unacceptable” and said he’s worried people may think the borough is crying wolf the next time there actually is an emergency. Cooper said the borough’s KPB Alerts system should be the headquarters for emergency notification, and Smith favored more local noticing and control of how emergency information is released.
“When it happens in the middle of summer like it did this last time and you’re evacuating the Spit, then you have your local law enforcement telling you no problem, and then the next thing you know, the sirens are going off — that’s nothing but confusion,” Smith said. “And we don’t need that.”
All candidates said they support fully funding the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District for the upcoming fiscal year, but emphasized the role the State of Alaska will play in determining how sufficiently schools are funded.
Smith, who said he’s a product of KPBSD, said the value of education the peninsula gives its children “sets the stage” for their future. Cooper said reliable funding for schools will ensure the district can retain quality teachers while also investing one of the peninsula’s biggest resources — its students.
Micciche highlighted his work on the issue of home-schooling, which is estimated to divert $7 million per year from KPBSD, and said he will be more engaged with the Alaska Legislature this year when it comes to school funding.
“I’m not going to stand back this year while we suffer the same consequences of not knowing what is going to occur (with) school funding when the final budget is signed by the governor,” Micciche said.
All candidates underscored the importance of the Homer Harbor Expansion project to the economy of the whole borough, rather than just Homer. Project leads told the Homer City Council that the city is facing new financial challenges with regards to the project, and candidates on Thursday said the borough can help by leveraging relationships to help secure outside funding.
“I just can’t stress enough how important that project is. Now what that project looks like when it’s done the size and scale, that’ll be something we’ll all come to an agreement on,” Cooper said. “But it’s a huge part of our economy, and I’ll do everything I can to help make that successful.”
Cooper said she had an “unfair advantage” with regards to a question about priority projects at South Peninsula Hospital because she chairs the hospital’s operating board. She rattled off electronic records, nuclear imaging and regulatory work in the hospital lab and pharmacy as among her biggest priorities.
Smith said it’s important to think about the economic, rather than just physical, health that South Peninsula Hospital provides when determining priority projects, and said he supports taking care of the hospital’s existing facilities.
Micciche said he worries that borough residents are “falling through the cracks” and said the borough spends a lot of money leasing property that it knows the hospital will need permanently.
“I think securing a campus for growth is a key priority and it’s something we’ve talked about a lot,” Micciche said. “Lately, we’re spending exorbitant costs on leasing facilities that we absolutely need to be a part of the campus for the long term.”
Candidates differed somewhat on whether they think the southern peninsula’s three fire services areas should be consolidated as a way to create efficiencies. Micciche said he envisions regional emergency response organizations on the peninsula — north, central, east and south — while Cooper said she’d need to consult with the various agencies before taking a stance.
Smith said that consolidation is something the borough should at least explore, noting that the final decision would ultimately be left up to voters. Presentation can be key, he said, when it comes to proposing change.
“It’s really going to come down to how you have the conversation, and the package you put together to sell it,” Smith said. “I absolutely believe that there’s some efficiencies that can be had through consolidation.”
Shortly before Thursday’s forum kicked off in Homer, Micciche’s office announced that he had declared a state of emergency in response to severe flooding in communities around the Kenai Peninsula. Amid heavy rainfall and an above-average snowfall last winter, high water issues have laid bare the limits of a second-class borough when it comes to things like flood response.
Micciche said the level of flooding he’s dealt with since taking over as mayor in February seems “almost biblical” and that Thursday’s declaration will allow the borough to provide some relief to affected residents. Smith said he’d want to back the people in front of the issue and try to act before it’s too late for the people impacted, while Cooper emphasized the importance of empowering people to make good decisions.
“One of the things that I take very seriously is helping people find the resources and having the information on where they should go to get the help that they need,” Cooper said. “That’s that communication that’s so critical.”
Candidates were also given the opportunity to make opening and closing statements during the forum.
Thursday’s full candidate forum can be streamed on the Clarion’s Facebook page, on KDLL’s website at kdll.org or on KBBI’s website at kbbi.org.
Election Day is Oct. 3 and absentee in-person voting starts on Sept. 18.
Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at firstname.lastname@example.org.