This story originally published in the Peninsula Clarion.
On Oct. 2, Soldotna residents will be voting for three new candidates for Soldotna City Council. Each opponent is running for their own seat, which means all candidates are unopposed. At Wednesday’s Soldotna Chamber Luncheon, candidates Justin Ruffridge, Jordan Chilson and Paul Whitney stated their views on issues ranging from annexation to new revenue streams and many others.
The forum began with candidate opening statements. Ruffridge is a business owner in Soldotna who has been living on the peninsula since 1994. He said running for the city council is an interesting opportunity to continue learning about the city. He was appointed to the city council last year and said he hopes to further educate himself and be a part of the city.
Chilson is a lifelong Alaskan and a network administrator for the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. He said he’s passionate about the community and has tried to integrate it into his personal life by joining local organizations and boards. He said he wants to continue serving the community and make positive impacts.
Whitney has been living in Alaska for more than 40 years. He has a background in criminal justice. He said he and his family love the area and his kids and grandkids have decided to stay in the community. He has served on the city council since 2013.
The moderator asked the candidates what qualifications they had. Whitney said his background working on numerous city councils and commissions, including in Fairbanks and Soldotna, has taught him to listen and to study the subject to understand what’s going on in order to make the right decision
Chilson said his business process mindset and his background in business help him see new opportunities and efficiency gains for the city. He also said his position with the school district can directly transfer to public service.
Ruffridge said he didn’t know if he had any specific or grandiose qualifications other than that he is a good problem solver. He said he is a quick learner and likes to think outside of the box. He said he’s excited to engage with and solve problems for the community.
Candidates agreed they expected annexation to be a challenge within the next term.
Chilson said another challenge would be the decline in revenue sharing Soldotna is receiving from state and federal agencies, which the city has historically depended on for capital projects and large infrastructure. He also expressed concern for a decline in tourism and area fisheries.
Ruffridge said a current challenge is forward thinking for the city.
“I think the decisions we make now affect our children in the future,” Ruffridge said. “We really have to think 10, 15 years down the road.”
Whitney said the wastewater treatment plan is going to be a big challenge with the decision of Ballot Measure 1 fast approaching.
Candidates said Soldotna’s greatest opportunities were economic development, tourism and Soldotna’s geographical location as a gateway and as a medical hub.
The moderator asked the candidates if they felt the city needed to diversify revenue streams.
Ruffridge said diversification sounds really nice, but the bed tax would be the most realistic way to improve cash flow from a diverse standpoint.
Chilson said a rise in property tax is the last resort the city should go through.
“We should pursue other options like growing our city boundaries or potentially a bed tax,” Chilson said. “We need to pursue all options before raising property taxes.”
Whitney said one way to increase revenue is to increase all businesses.
“A business-friendly community — more business-friendly than we are now — will generate more sales tax,” Whitney said. “I think we’re starting to see that.”
The big question of the forum asked the candidates their views and vision on annexation. All candidates saw the annexation of adjacent areas as something good for the city.
Annexation presents the opportunity for economic growth, said, Chilson. He added that it’s not his goal to alter the way of life in communities who could be potentially annexed.
“I think it’s important we allow this to go before the Local Boundary Commission, which takes all the important facts and determines what’s fair and in the best interest of all the parties,” Chilson said.
Whitney and Ruffridge also said it would be good for the city, as well as areas around Soldotna that are being considered for annexation.
When it comes to the city’s role in fighting crime and the opioid crisis, Ruffridge said there are a lot of programs that the council can throw their weight behind to help the community tackle these issues.
“Change in the opioid epidemic comes from people helping people,” Ruffridge said.
Whitney said the city police force will be taking on the crime issue, and as far as the opioid problem he said there need to be more treatment programs.
Chilson said there are some things the city can do to help mitigate crime and opioid issues.
“I’d like to see more community engagement by our police department, maybe the establishment of a neighborhood watch program, like what the Kenai Police Department has,” Chilson said.
Candidates were asked where they stand on two large projects being worked on in the city: the Soldotna sports complex and a proposed visitor’s convention center at Soldotna Creek Park.
Chilson said he was concerned that the visitor’s center would detract from the value of Soldotna Creek Park as a city green space, and said he would rather see the project combine with the sports center remodel.
“I propose alternatively an expanded sports center remodel that includes an enhanced visitor’s center and conference facility and field house that we could combine into one cost-effective package that would give Soldotna a visitor and event hub for years to come,” Chilson said.
Whitney and Ruffridge said they had a few misgivings about putting the new visitor’s center on park land. Whitney said the proposed building could take up more than 70 percent of the land. At the end of the forum, the Chamber said the plans would only occupy about 2-3 percent of the park land.
The state of Alaska has stopped funding many capital projects. When it comes to using bonds for infrastructure needs, the candidates agreed it could be necessary and useful for the right project.
“I think there’s a couple of ways forward for funding, but I think bonding is going to be a necessity moving forward,” Ruffridge said.
At Wednesday’s city council meeting, a resolution to oppose the “Stand for Salmon” Alaska Ballot Measure 1 will be voted on.
Ruffridge and Whitney said they had concerns about the measure, but were planning to wait until the meeting to decide where they stood on the issue.
Chilson said he did not believe it was appropriate for the city to take a formal stance on the measure.
With extra time at the luncheon, the Chamber allowed the audience to ask the candidates questions. Pam Parker, owner of Everything Bagels, asked the candidates what they feel the role of the city council is in developing the business climate in Soldotna.
Ruffridge said the creation of a downtown district would help support new business.
“We don’t have a singular location for businesses to congregate,” Ruffridge said.
Chilson said Soldotna Creek Park could become the hub of Ruffridge’s ideal urban district.
Whitney said regulations are the biggest thing the council can do to promote business in the city.
Soldotna residents will be voting on Soldotna City Council candidates on Oct. 2. in the municipal elections.