With just 885 votes separating Kenai Peninsula Borough mayoral candidates Charlie Pierce and Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings, the pair face each other in a runoff election on October 24th. Pierce and Farnsworth-Hutchings appeared together on this week's (Oct. 11) KDLL Kenai Conversation.
Retired Enstar manager and former Kenai Peninsula Borough Assemblyman Charlie Pierce drew 38 percent of last week's votes in the municipal election, totaling 5,489. Auto-dealer executive Linda Farnsworth-Hutchings had 32 percent of the vote, with 4,604 votes cast in her favor. They are vying for third-place candidate Dale Bagley's nearly 4,200 votes in the runoff.
The Kenai Conversation started with bang with Farnsworth-Hutchings accusing Pierce of being a politician, which he denied.
"I think what really makes me more qualified and better suited for this position is that I have sat on the assembly and have been through six years worth of budget processes, working with those budgets," he said. "I have a clearer vision, I believe. More experience; it's basically more experience, you know."
Farnsworth-Hutchings then defended her experience as being more than simply an accountant, which Pierce suggested:
"Mr. Pierce might think I'm an accountant, but that's a heck of a background when you're CFO for two big companies that has millions of dollars of inventory, payroll, 82 employees," she said.
With the failure of Proposition 3 on the ballot, which would have increased the maximum taxable purchase from $500 to $1,000, the borough will likely remain in deficit spending mode for another budget cycle. But Farnsworth-Hutchings is hopeful that the failure of Prop 1, which maintains the legality of cannabis business on the peninsula, will help pick up the slack.
"I really, firmly believe, particularly of the fact that with Prop 1 did not take away the cultivation of marijuana in our borough, we are going to have increased property tax, because these facilities have to be bought," Farnsworth-Hutchings said. "We will have more sales tax in our cities where they're selling the cannabis. And there's also now movement towards the medicinal portion."
Pierce said the rejection of Prop 3 will likely spur spending.
"You know, I think that if you avoid taxation, you leave the money that people earn in their pockets. And then they'll in turn go into our local economy and spend those dollars in our local economy. Which then generates new sales tax revenue," Pierce said. "I'm hopeful is the direction that we take."
Nevertheless, the next borough mayor will face a budget shortfall of about $4-million. Pierce held out hope that revenue from sales tax would increase, but kept what he might cut in the borough's budget close to his vest.
"There's actually more opportunities to generate more revenue in our borough; sales tax revenue. There are more options there than I would say are general cuts across the borough. And you know if I went down my list of five top ones, I'm sure my opponent will be advertising for me the next day and before too long they'll be hers," he said. "So, I'll hold off, and I'll just assure you of this: I have a plan. I've had a plan from the beginning. I'm very confident of myself and the people that I will circle myself with."
Farnsworth-Hutchings said she would seek efficiencies in the borough government:
"Every department has something that needs to be streamlined. And coming from a very strong accounting background with computerized issues, I mean, I travel all over the United States for electronic data systems doing seminars on accounting and how to drill down and how to make the process more efficient," she said. "So I think there are so many opportunities out there to do that. And besides which, as I said, with our new sales tax revenue coming in and more facilities being built, I think you're going to see a much smaller deficit."
With new momentum, the Pebble Partnership last week unveiled its latest plan for the Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay. Both candidates said they'd like to see the permitting process proceed instead of it being preemptively blocked. The Kenai Peninsula could benefit from the project as a staging area.
Relations with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District, which is the largest line item in the borough's budget, was a point of disagreement between the candidates. Pierce said there's a disconnect between the school and the borough, but Farnsworth-Hutchings said she did not see it:
"I see great communications going on between the school district and the borough. And we do have to remember they are two separate entities. Agreed, the borough funds that budget, because that is what our sales tax is used for," Farnsworth-Hutchings said. "But I don't see that there's this 'disconnect' that I keep hearing about, because, as I said, I've walked cross back and forth all the time; I know quite a few people on both sides of that wall."
Pierce disagreed, saying "I believe that we need to get our house in order, fix the deficit, the $4-million deficit, before we're able to give full funding of schools."
You can hear the entire one-hour Kenai Conversation with Pierce and Farnsworth-Hutchings elsewhere here on our website.