Voices of the Peninsula: ‘It has been an honor to serve’

Borough mayor gives send-off ahead of departure

By Charlie Pierce

My last official day as mayor of the Kenai Peninsula Borough will be Sept. 30, 2022. In the August primary, I was honored to be voted in the top 4 candidates for governor. Now I must devote my full attention to that contest. Ideally, the five-week notice I provided the borough assembly will be enough to ensure a smooth transition to an interim mayor.

As I leave the office of mayor, my reflections on the past five years are coupled with feelings of accomplishment and gratitude. It has been an incredible time to serve as your mayor. Over the past five years, the Kenai Peninsula Borough has successfully navigated through at least nine disaster declarations, including floods, earthquakes, landslides, the Swan Lake Fire and COVID-19. Despite these challenges, my team and I are pleased to have the following achievements to highlight for you today:

In 2017, we came to office facing a budget deficit of $4.5 million. Now, the fund balance for fiscal year 2023 is in the black almost $24 million ($23,954,000). Even more, this positive balance does not include a couple “Christmas presents” that are also coming your way. First is a prior debt reimbursement of $6 million now earmarked in the state’s budget; second is $4 million in underestimated sales tax collections from August 2022. The net result will increase the Kenai Peninsula Borough fund balance to $35 million as I leave office.

As mayor, I proposed no increases in property tax mil rates. The previous administration under Mike Navarre had planned a property tax increase of one mil. That proposed increase would have taken $8 million away from borough homeowners and out of our economy. I would like to especially recognize the contributions of Brandi Harbaugh, the borough’s finance officer. With Ms. Harbaugh’s assistance, we developed realistic and conservative budgets through 2026.

The gains can be lost. Be vigilant. I encourage all Kenai Peninsula residents to become familiar with the budgeting process, get involved, and hold your representatives accountable to use these public funds wisely. Budget documents are available online at FY 23 Assembly Adopted Budget.

The Kenai Peninsula Land Trust was developed under my administration, and now we look forward to receiving dividends from it. I would like to especially acknowledge the efforts of Marcus Mueller, KPB’s land management officer, for his vision and for personally spearheading this project. Two previous mayors had passed on making Mueller’s vision a reality. It took a lot of planning, hard work, and then convincing nine assembly members to agree. Congratulations, Marcus, and thank you.

My administration oversaw the adoption of a safety culture for our borough employees. When I took office, the 10-year cost of workman’s comp claims was $18 million. To date, we have reduced this expense by 60%. Most importantly, of course, our employees are experiencing fewer injuries.

Employee Leadership Training is funded through the 2023 Budget. It teaches and gives our borough employees the skills to lead with confidence.

We transitioned to a borough-run Emergency Dispatch Center. Formerly run by the State of Alaska, it is now staffed by borough employees and funded by the users. The result is increased efficiency and faster response times to police, EMS and fire calls. When you are waiting for help, those reduced minutes mean lives saved.

My focus has been to get a paramedic on every ambulance leaving the station. These are the specialists that can administer medication on-site, increasing patient survival. My administration has added 18 emergency-response positions. When I first came to office, our first responders were burned out, emergency calls were up, overtime was high, and volunteerism was down. We have addressed these problems head-on by hiring more highly skilled staff.

We now have a reliable tsunami warning system. Five years ago, we didn’t get alarms until three hours after the event was over. A $700,000 system has been secured to fix this issue.

We initiated the borough use of social media. Its use has proven invaluable for keeping the public informed, especially during disasters.

Nikiski now has a new fire station, Station #3, without any added borough debt. The station operates 24/7 with staff and volunteers. I am heartened to know that families in that area will have faster responses.

My administration structured a $65,000,000 bond package for school facilities, and a $16,000,000 bond package for a new Soldotna fire station. These items will be presented to voters in October. We are confident the bond packages serve the borough’s best interests. Now is the time to make these investments in our communities.

Construction for a new Kachemak-Selo School building is scheduled to begin in the spring of 2024. The K-Selo needed a new school building for years and I am happy to move that project off my desk as it was inherited from the Navarre administration. The fiscal year 2023 budget already includes $3,000,000 for this stand-alone project (not included in the bond). There should be no further delays for families and children there.

School security was enhanced. Six of our most vulnerable schools now use key card access. Soon the borough building will, as well.

My administration invested in our Information Technology Department. That team was instrumental during the remodel of the assembly chambers. We can now support public participation in meetings from anywhere via Zoom. I highly encourage borough residents to attend assembly meetings. More information can be found on the borough’s website at Kenai Peninsula Borough Meeting Calendar.

Long-standing housekeeping issues are now being addressed. There were unauthorized structures on borough lands, and now a fair process is in place to achieve resolution. Junk cars had been in the public rights of way. Today they are hauled off at the owner’s expense.

This list is a sampling to show I have been a faithful steward of the office entrusted to me. I applaud the 300 Kenai Peninsula Borough employees for all these achievements; working with them is what I enjoyed most about my job. I give special thanks to my former chiefs of staff Aaron Rhoades, James Baisden and John Quick. I wish the assembly and the new administration the best. Try to be nice to each other. We have so many blessings bestowed on us in the Kenai Peninsula Borough. It has truly been my honor to serve.

Charlie Pierce served as Kenai Peninsula Borough mayor from 2017-2022.