Budget gap and taxes take center stage at mayoral forum

Sep 15, 2017

Linda Farnsworth Hutchings (left), Dale Bagley (center) and Charley Pierce (right) take questions at the 2017 Homer Chamber of Commerce borough mayor forum.
Credit Aaron Bolton, KBBI News

With under three weeks to go until municipal elections, the three candidates running for borough mayor made a stop in Homer Thursday for a town-hall style forum. Candidates took both prepared and audience questions. Topics ranged from local control over hospitals to the current invocation policy, but the budget deficit and taxes stole the show.

Linda Farnsworth Hutchings, Dale Bagley and Charlie Pierce squared off for the 2017 Homer Chamber of Commerce’s town hall forum at the Homer Elk’s Lodge Thursday evening.

Candidates began with two-minute opening statements, each highlighting their past experience. Hutchings and Pierce both chose to focus on their management backgrounds in the private sector.

Current assembly member Bagley touted the seven years he has sat on the borough assembly and his stint as borough mayor from 1999 to 2005.

When it came down to policy, the $4 million budget gap was the main topic of discussion. No candidates directly endorsed Proposition 3, which would raise the sales tax cap, taxing sales up $1,000 instead of the current $500 cap.

Hutchings in particular didn’t take a hard stance on new revenues outside of a tourism tax.

“If we do pass raising the sales tax cap, I think we’ll be very close to meeting our budget. So, I think really that everybody is getting really worried and scared and whatever,” she said. “I think they need to stop and really take a good look at revenue sources that we currently have and see what we can do within them.”

The tax cap measure would raise about $3.6 million annually. Bagley didn’t express much faith in it passing, but he noted that borough spending has been relatively flat in recent years.

“As mayor, we will work with the assembly. We’ll try to find some cuts, but ultimately, I think we will need to find another source of revenue,” Bagley explained. “It doesn’t need to be too drastic, but we’ll have to do something.”

Bagley has favored expanding taxes on groceries from three to six months out of the year in the past. The assembly voted down that proposal again earlier this spring.

Pierce focused more on working within current revenue streams, but did add that some new revenue measures might be necessary. However, his platform primarily hinges on finding efficiencies in the current budget.

“I bet there are things in that borough that we did 50 years ago that we’re still doing today, 50 years later, the same way. There’s new technology, there’s new opportunities,” Pierce noted.

He said he would go department by department seeking cuts. Hutchings echoed Pierce in that regard, but she does think the borough is working to save money where it can.

“We’re working on all of these things. We aren’t blowing our money. We’re working very hard, being smart purchasers. We’re not scaring anybody,” Hutchings said in reference to consolidations the borough has made.

Bagley gave a shortlist of cost saving measures like installing LED lights in borough and school buildings. He also said he would scrutinize travel by borough employees to save money.

Taxes and the deficit weren’t the only hot topics to come up. Audience members also wanted to know how candidates felt about the current invocation policy at assembly meetings.

Hutchings didn’t say one way or the other, but she said she would be fine without prayer before meetings. Pierce thinks the policy discriminates, and he said the borough will likely lose the current lawsuit against the American Civil Liberties Union.

Bagley also took a firm stance, but in support of the policy.

“The current lawsuit before the Kenai Peninsula Borough will look into that issue, and if they kick it back, we’ll deal with it,” Bagley said. “If they say it’s ok, then as long as assembly members keep wanting to do it, we’ll keep doing it.”

Proposition 1 was also brought up, which would ban commercial cannabis outside the city limits of incorporated communities. Hutchings urged people to think of the medical benefits cannabis can provide. Both Pierce and Bagley didn’t directly say if they supported the industry, but they did say the tax revenue it generates is helpful for the borough.

The industry is expected to generate about $100,000 in sales tax this fiscal year.