With the local election in the rear-view mirror, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre is looking to continue the momentum his administration has made and asks residents to keep an open mind moving forward.
Navarre, now in his third term as borough mayor and second consecutive, said the election ended up being a distraction that took away from daily operations. While the campaign process allowed him to hear from the community, he said it also took away time from his management responsibilities and access to department directors.
Navarre said his focus in this term will be to tackle the contentious issues that face the borough, like health care, review of the current tax code and school district funding.
Education takes up the largest portion of the borough general fund — about 66 percent. For the fiscal year 2015, the borough contributed $44 million to the school district. He said education is the biggest priority, responsibility and expenditure.
The Alaska LNG Project is another area the borough needs to pay close attention to and prepare for the socioeconomic impacts and infrastructure needs.
Gov. Sean Parnell appointed Navarre to the Municipal Advisory Gas Project Review Board in July.
His role will be vital in the discussions of the possible changes in the tax structuring and how it would impact the borough.
Navarre said the administration would look at the tax code with an eye toward whether changes need to be made. When voters chose to increase the property tax exemption from $20,000 to $50,000, that had an impact on overall revenues and certain factors will affect what the budget will be, he said.
“Our administration team will engage the business community and public in those discussions,” he said. “We will be deliberative to identify what changes we think make sense and communicate it.”
In his time as mayor the accomplishment Navarre is most proud of is that the budget has run a surplus the last few years.
Prior to his arrival the borough was seeing deficit spending, which dipped into the reserves, he said. By building the reserve fund along with the oil and gas tax base increase, the borough has built a surplus, which allows the opportunity to reduce taxes, he said.
“We don’t spend every nickel that is budgeted,” he said.
One of the first things Navarre did when he was elected mayor in 2011 was request $200,000 from the borough assembly for health care.
With the uncertainty of the Affordable Care Act’s future during the 2012 Presidential Election, the borough funding for health care lapsed back into the general fund.
Navarre said in November he would again introduce an ordinance to address health care.
He said the cost of health care is a “huge issue not easily changed because the industry is built up on a revenue generating system.” He would like to engage the community in a conversation to develop a shared vision for health care.
“If we make small incremental changes each one would be controversial and we will have to fight the battle over and over again because there is a lot of vested interest in the existing system,” he said. “If all you do is focus on trying to squeeze down the cost, ones who have the best ability to lobby to keep what they have, are the ones that want out.”
Navarre said the responsibility of Central Peninsula Hospital and South Peninsula Hospital is to get more revenue to keep growing, but there has to be “a saturation level” to reach because patients can’t afford care anymore. If the rising medical costs are not addressed his biggest fear is the whole system will crash.
Navarre said the main responsibility of the mayor changes from day to day based on various issues that come across his office.
“Something will come up out of the blue and take a great deal of focus from daily operations,” he said. “Then we have to keep looking at our priorities and what we want to accomplish.”
The 2013 flooding in the Kalifornsky Beach area is a prime example of unexpected natural disasters that can affect the borough and its residents, he said.
“We do what we can to mitigate the impacts but there is a fine line between overreacting to a one-time event,” he said. “When people are emotionally involved in decisions it does demand attention and focus. We have to be aware of their concerns. The responsibility we have is to all residents of the borough. It’s an ongoing balancing act.”
In August, Navarre vetoed the 3-percent bed tax from going on the ballot.
The tax was estimated to bring in $1.6 million annually to promote tourism marketing. It didn’t make good sense to raise taxes when the borough had a surplus, he said. The borough already funded $300,000 to the Kenai Peninsula Tourism Marketing Council.
Navarre said while campaign seasons can typically devolve into negative mistrust of certain party politics or rhetoric of hidden agendas, he asked the Kenai Peninsula citizens to have faith in his leadership.
“We need an open mind and ask for (citizens) to trust me as we go forward,” he said. “
It’s imperative that we properly communicate what we are trying to accomplish if we stand a chance of accomplishing things together.”
Dan Balmer is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.