In the upcoming municipal elections, three candidates are running for the seat of Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor: incumbent Mayor Charlie Pierce, Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings and Tony Nightingale. Pierce and Farnsworth-Hutchings spoke with the Clarion about their campaigns ahead of Election Day. Farnsworth-Hutchings was interviewed on Sept. 17, while Pierce was interviewed on Sept. 25. Both interviews have been edited for length and clarity. Nightingale did not respond to multiple interview requests as of press time.
Why did you decide to run for reelection?
Pierce: “I believe that it takes time to get things done. Especially in government. There’s certainly a great deal of accomplishments that have been achieved over the last three years, and I almost feel like there’s a duty. I owe it to the group that’s there that’s been working hard to get the borough in the position it’s in. I owe them a service to continue what we’ve been doing.”
Pierce said he is proud of the team he has built on the borough’s administrative level and the mutual trust that has been established, and he wants to continue developing and strengthening those relationships.
“Something I’ve realized and have said to borough employees is that every three years you have the potential of having a new boss,” Pierce said. “And that can be very daunting; it can bring a level of anxiety or uncertainty. I feel like we’ve done a great job and I’ve developed a huge amount of trust for the people there. They’ve developed trust in me, and I want to be reliable to them.”
How would you describe your leadership style as borough mayor?
Pierce: “I’m a generalist, and I empower people to make decisions. I lead through example. I show up early, and one of the comments I first made with the employees when I first got there was: Give me an opportunity to earn your respect.”
Pierce said that he doesn’t like to micromanage his employees, but at the same time he holds them accountable for the responsibilities that they are given.
“What I find with people is that when you give them the set of keys to the car and tell them ‘You own this, this is yours’ people will take more time to produce better results when they know they own it,” Pierce said. “One of the things I did early on was I started these boards in my office, and we started cataloging all the different things going on around the borough. And then we’d bring the directors in, and we would say, ‘Who owns number three, or nine, or 18,’ and as we completed whatever it was, we marked it off.”
Pierce said that those boards will be waiting for whoever wins the election on Oct. 6 — whether it’s him or one of his opponents.
What is your biggest concern for the borough going into 2021, and do you have any plans to address that concern?
Pierce: “I’m feeling pretty confident. If you had asked me this question two, three months ago, I probably would have told you that I have some real anxiety.”
Pierce said that in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic hitting Alaska, his biggest concerns were for the small businesses that were forced to shut their doors and the fishing industry that was unable to fish. These days, his concerns revolve around the potential impact that decisions made at the state level might have for the borough.
“My No. 1 concern would not be so much about what we’re going to do or the decisions we make locally. What I worry about is what they’re going to do in Juneau. I worry about what our legislators are going to do as it relates to revenue sharing.”
With budget concerns at the state level, a larger portion of the costs for services like education have been shifted to the budgets of local municipalities. Pierce said that he’s been sensitive to this issue since Gov. Mike Dunleavy was elected and rolled out his first budget, and he has made efforts to account for more spending in the years to come.
“One of the first things I did when Dunleavy rolled out his budget cuts was I put a hiring freeze on,” Pierce said. “Not hiring people for the better part of a year saved us $1.2 million. That’s a decision that I made.”
What would you say are some of the strengths of your administration?
Pierce: “What I do is I try to bring people together on a team and build strengths within the working groups, so that we can produce the very, very best product that we possibly can. I think that my management style and my management experience was something that was needed at the borough. I think it’s something that the borough has benefited from.”
What are some weaknesses you’ve identified within your administration, or areas where you could improve?
Pierce: “I don’t play politics very well. I don’t sit back and try and strategize or spend a good part of my day worrying about a strategy to one-up someone. I don’t do that.”
Pierce admitted he was no expert when it comes to the finer points of the budget process, but he makes sure to have those experts on his team.
“I guess when it comes to the real intricate parts, I don’t know all of the accounting codes for all the different categories,” Pierce said. “I know where the money’s at; I know where the budget’s at, and I know where the general fund’s at. … When you put a team together, you go out and you try to grab those experts.”
What is your biggest policy priority for the borough going into 2021?
Pierce: “It would be my hopes, and I was ready to do this before COVID, to create a director of safety and risk and separate that from the HR department.”
Addressing issues with the borough’s HR department has been a priority of his from early in administration, Pierce said, and removing that aspect from the HR department’s responsibilities would free them up to be more effective. He acknowledged that that would mean hiring a new borough employee at a department director’s salary.
“You know, it was evident to me shortly after I got there that we had an HR department that lacked a lot of written policies. The HR director that’s there today has written some 15, 20 policies; he’s loaded those online and into a database that is accessible by all the employees in the borough.”
What should be the borough’s priority in terms of the response to COVID-19 going into the winter?
Pierce: “I think we continue to monitor the CDC guidelines, and we did that from day one. Our response, I think, has been impeccable. I think that we were ahead of the curve long before the issues were really even being formalized.”
Pierce talked about the borough’s initial response and praised the work of Brenda Ahlberg and Dan Nelson with the Office of Emergency Management in using the KPB Alerts system to keep residents informed about the pandemic on a daily basis and quickly establishing the grant programs that the borough put in place for small businesses and nonprofits using CARES Act funds.
“We have some very, very motivated and very intelligent and driven people that take a lot of pride in what they do. My job with them couldn’t be easier, it’s to tell them ‘Thank you’ repeatedly, every day.”
Last year there was a ballot measure to raise the borough’s sales tax cap that was rejected by voters. Would you support that measure if it were put on the ballot again next year?
Pierce: “No. It’s unnecessary.”
How can the borough ensure it has the funds going forward to pay for the services it provides?
Pierce: “When Dunleavy started relaxing the mandates, the first thing I did was I got out on social media and announced that we were open for business.”
Do you think that made an impact on the borough’s revenue?
Pierce: “Yes, absolutely. It’s made a very positive impact on this borough. The City of Seward and the City of Homer are open for business and they were busy all summer, still providing those boat rides and still providing those tours. The difference was they didn’t have the 90 cruise ships come to Seward or the buses and the train coming down from Anchorage, so the tourism dollars were just not there this year.”
Pierce said that, by focusing on attracting Alaska residents to come to the peninsula, the borough has not taken as much of a revenue hit as was expected at the beginning of the pandemic. Another, somewhat unexpected factor that could lead to increased property taxes for the borough in years to come is the fact that this July saw the highest number of land sales and new construction projects on record for the area, Pierce said.
“I have some friends that are realtors and I asked them why people are moving here,” Pierce said. “The No. 1 reason they’re moving here is that we’ve got a friendlier government. … Anchorage is too expensive, too controlling, and they’re tired of the influx of people. And once they want to move, you’ve got some folks that are approaching retirement age. They’ve got some dollars to invest, and they invested in real estate and land. New construction starts up, and what does that do for us? When you build a house, the wood you buy, the goods and services you buy, the hiring, that’s sales tax revenue.”
A $30 million bond for deferred school maintenance in the borough was almost put on the ballot this year but was postponed due to COVID-19. Would you support that bond if it makes it to the ballot box next year?
Pierce: “Yes, but also no.”
Pierce said that he would support that bond proposal in a situation where the school district comes up with a five-year, 10-year and 15-year master plan for delivering education that includes a list of maintenance needs going forward.
“Only then, after we’ve gone through that process, will I stand up before the constituency of the borough and say, ‘The state is no longer receiving our top 10 capital priority list that we need to do in the borough, and we have some maintenance needs that need to be addressed in our schools’,” Pierce said.
“But until we get there, I’m comfortable with trying to take as much money out (the general fund) and move it over towards school funding for maintenance and things. We did the boilers without borrowing money. We did the security systems without borrowing money. We’ve paid our own way so far, and the only thing we borrowed money on was the roofs.”
How should the borough and the school district handle its deferred maintenance needs?
Pierce: “My vision as mayor would be to establish a fund, similar to what we’ve done at our hospitals. It’s called a plant replacement fund, so that when you have a maintenance item that comes up, you can go to your plant replacement fund and you can fix things without borrowing money. That $30 million bond is going to cost you $20 million over its lifetime. Why would you want to do that? That’s $20 million you’re paying in fees could be going to actual repairs along the way.”
Pierce said there are 17 school maintenance items on the borough’s to-do list, the most expensive of which is a replacement of the Homer High School roof that is projected to cost between $5 and $7 million. The borough has submitted an application to the state for a grant that would help pay for that project, Pierce said.
The peninsula largely leans conservative on political issues, but is still very diverse, culturally and geographically. How do you approach providing equal access to the borough’s services for all residents?
Pierce: “I don’t hire my family; I don’t hire my friends, and I try to be in the middle on most issues. You have the far left, and you have the far right, and what I try and do as a leader is try and bring us together in a common voice of achieving end results. Because I think both sides, regardless of where you’re at, most days, we all want to arrive at the same destination. It’s just a matter of how do we get there?”
Pierce said that, with the current political climate, it can be difficult to approach issues in a nonpartisan way.
“You will see me behave more far right in my personal behaviors and my personal decision-making, but it’s a shame that in America we’ve lost the ability to communicate with each other and to agree to disagree and not feel like killing each other. It’s sad, because I’m very, very comfortable with somebody disagreeing with me. I’m good with it. It’s OK. Disagree with me.”
Do you have any final thoughts for voters who may be undecided?
Pierce: “Just look at the record. Look at the performance record.”
Pierce noted that in his three years of office, the budget for “general government spending” for the borough has decreased by about 8% overall, and referenced other actions the borough has taken during this time to reduce expenditures.
“When I came into office, the first month I was there I saved the borough $4 million on a heating system. I saved you over $3 million over the next three years on health care costs. There haven’t been a lot of mayors that have come around and actually shown you any results like that.”