Interview with candidates for the Haines Borough Assembly seats
September 26, 2019
Do you think the borough’s current level of taxation is appropriate? If not, how would you change it?
Sally McGuire: About one-fifth of our sales tax (over $500) is a dedicated tax for tourism and economic development. I would like to see this go into the general fund. It was intended to boost tourism back when that was a fledgling industry but now it’s time they paid for their own promotion. (Note: fishermen tax themselves 3 percent of their gross to pay for promotion.) The tourist center would then be funded out of the general fund as are our other departments.
Fishermen pay a severance tax for use of a common resource (fish). We need to have the same tax on other resources that might be taken from the borough: timber, minerals, water. We will have major problems thanks to Dunleavy’s cuts and at a minimum, restructuring the taxes and considering not filling vacant positions would help.
Gabe Thomas: We need to be creative and thoughtful when considering changes to taxation. State funds are decreasing so we must look at ways to generate revenue, reduce expenses, or grow the overall tax base through economic development initiatives to bring more dollars into the borough and keep more dollars circulating locally. I support a seasonal sales tax, one that is higher in the summer and lower in the winter. Summer visitors and workers provide us with many opportunities and many services to support. Summer construction projects already have a special sales tax exemption so they would not be impacted. Some of the biggest hurdles facing local families I have spoken with are heating and food expenses, and I think they could be reduced during the winter to help offset the other costs. I’d like to give this consideration at the assembly.
Paul Rogers: As we work towards balancing the borough budget we should look for ways to increase economic opportunities for our residents while avoidng taxes that will disproportionately burden those that can least afford the increases. Taxation should only increase if the residents vote for increases and/or request and approve additional services. Any new taxation should be capped and the borough should not be able to raise taxes without a vote of the residents.
Zephyr Sincerny: The governor is forcing us to redesign our budget and therefore we need to look at alternative ways of funding the services we value in Haines. As a rule of thumb we need to scrutinize our budget on a regular basis. Can we save money by not filling currently open positions? Do we have duplication of service in our government? Currently we have tax surpluses in some areas and shortfalls in others. We need to see if restructuring our finances can address our budget issues without having to increase taxes.
Sean Gaffney: I would like to avoid additional taxes because I believe they have the potential to disproportionately impact young families and older people on fixed incomes. I also think there is the potential that the state could pass a statewide income tax in the near future, and I would like to see where that issue goes before raising taxes locally.
Did you or did you not support Gov. Dunleavy’s June budget vetoes to school bond debt reimbursement, the Alaska Marine Highway System, education, public radio, senior benefits, Head Start, early childhood education, Alaska State Council on the Arts, the Ocean Ranger cruise ship inspection program and the Alaska Court System?
McGuire: No I do not support such a budget. Oil companies have their taxes partly subsidized in Alaska and make far larger profits than in other places. Dunleavy could have opted to modernize their tax structure, bringing in $1.2 billion in unpaid taxes, but instead he slashed funding for Alaska’s children, the elderly, pollution protection, and the road systems of Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound. Alaska’s university system has taken very severe cuts with the world-class research facilities being hit particularly hard. It was truly galling that he would come to Haines and push the mine - foreign owned, foreign financed - after destroying so many existing good jobs of people who are Alaskan, who owned property and paid taxes.
Thomas: Funding of the ferry system, school bond debt, education programs and senior benefits are areas I would like to see prioritized. I also think it is important that we continue to help meet the needs of the vulnerable in our state. Rather than give simple yes/no answers for what has already happened, I want everyone to know that I will work hard to minimize impacts from state budget cuts by managing our local budget well. As an assembly, we can work to help residents voice their opinions to legislators and the governor. We can work with organizations like the Alaska Municipal League and the Southeast Conference so that local government and Southeast-specific impacts are heard. We also need to look at how our community might be able to help generate more state revenue so that more cuts do not need to be made to programs and services.
Rogers: I support the concept of state budget cuts to reduce the state budget for long term sustainability. I do not support the magnitude of the cuts, especially for services that affect the most vulnerable, elderly, and children. The school bond debt reimbursement was established many years ago and communities counted on the reimbursement when they were making major capital improvement decisions. Voters approved bond funding for the school projects based on the expectation that reimbursement would continue. The state should continue to fund reimbursement on projects developed under the reimbursement program. The Alaska Marine Highway is a basic need to servicing the coastal communities and funding should be maintained until the needs are able to be serviced by an alternative such as a public/private partnership if it is determined to be in the public’s best interest.
Sincerny: I do not support the governor’s June budget vetoes. The governor is not considering the needs of hundreds of thousands of Alaskans who are not making their living from the oil industry: which is actually most of the residents of the state. All of the services in his cuts are needed to support a high quality of life. Some of them such as the reduction in the ferry service will cripple and create significant financial hardship for many communities. All of the programs listed help create community in Alaska and they also provide many needed jobs for a relatively small amount of funding input. Putting public money into services such as education, public radio, Head Start and early childhood education and the council for the arts creates jobs and a place where people can and want to live. Many of these programs generate employment and feed other grant-funded opportunities. These programs affect our future and take care of our elders. One example is that it is proven that early childhood education lowers future crime and incarceration rates which are far more expensive than pre-school! I support the arts and social services that everyday residents rely on to live fulfilling lives in Haines.
Gaffney: I did not. The state budget does need to be balanced, but I don’t believe the depth of cuts he approved was the right way to approach it. The current challenges to the borough budget are coming primarily because of the state budget cuts. If taxes are going to be raised, I think it would be most balanced and fair to have them come at the state level. That spreads the burden out over the entire state rather than placing it solely on our community. Some of those programs may need to see some reductions, but the governor’s cuts were too much. I have expressed support for the consideration of hiring a lobbyist to work for our community, and I believe this is a good example of where we may benefit from having one.
If Gov. Dunleavy cuts the education budget next year, which he has targeted, how should we respond locally? Do you support such cuts to education?
McGuire: This is a question that I certainly hope does not come up. But if it does come up then that’s a crisis. The first job of a government is education of its children so a lot of other important things will go by the board.
Thomas: I do not support any cuts to education. For me, education is a top priority, so we need to find ways to balance our needs and debt service with opportunities for increased borough revenue. This will require a tremendous amount of community input to make suggestions to the assembly on how to fully fund the school. The easy answer is to to draw from the general funds, but I think the reality is that we to need engage in a robust conversation on essential vs. non-essential services and budget accordingly.
Rogers: The voters of Haines Borough will have to decide if they want to spend down reserves, cut other programs, or raise taxes to make up for the shortfall. The Haines Borough public school district is a basic need to the community and the assembly needs to ensure the school has the funds it needs to continue to provide a quality education to our children.
Sincerny: I do not support cutting the education budget. We must support our school. If that takes restructuring our budget and moving money from one pot to another we will. We cannot let our kids down or provide them sub-par educational opportunities.
Gaffney: I do not support the education cuts, in particular the cuts to the school debt reimbursement program and early education. Again, I see this as a good reason for the borough to consider hiring a lobbyist.
How do you define civil discourse? Have you or have you not contributed to respectful speech in the past? How will you communicate to the public and to other elected officials as an assembly member?
McGuire: Civil discourse requires sticking to the matter at hand; anything else is a disruption to getting anything done. Thus, in a family discussion you don’t drag in your opinion of your mother-in-law. At the very least it clogs the conversation. At the level of the borough, it’s the mayor’s job to control meetings and make sure things flow smoothly and in accordance with formal rules. If someone says something unpleasant or bullying or otherwise out of line, that person should be gaveled down or asked to leave if necessary. No one, certainly not an assembly member, should be subject to insults while trying to get their work done. For myself, I always try to be polite. But I also do not care for abuse or bullying, and would be unlikely to vote with anyone who did it.
Thomas: Civil discourse is being able to have a conversation between two people with different ideas while remaining open for discussion. I’ve had numerous conversations like this during my time working as the assistant harbormaster for the borough due to the looming harbor project at the time. If elected I will communicate as I have in the past: Ask a question, get the answer. While communicating to assembly members on opposing issues it is imperative to listen to their opinion and respect what they are saying as the Assembly person might represent a different side of the community’s opinion. All of us in this community deserve a voice and we deserve to be heard.
Rogers: Civil discourse is the process of carrying on a discussion with other people where all the participants are willing to listen to the other viewpoints and ask clarifying questions. It is best accomplished when one listens before speaking. Discussion must be limited to the merits of the subject matter and not personal attacks on an individual that has an opposing viewpoint. It is important to avoid slighting or demeaning someone’s idea because you do not agree. In my professional experience I have learned that simple respect and clarifying questions can go a long way toward a productive discussion. When someone insults or demeans another person, the person offended can become defensive and unwilling to continue in a mutually beneficial discussion.
Sincerny: Civil discourse is open, respectful conversation with sensitivity to how the things we say will influence the conversation; listening is key. Many folks are passionate about various subjects and I appreciate that. However, it is imperative that we communicate in a healthy forward-thinking way. Whether we support or oppose the Palmer Project or the harbor project or any other seemingly controversial issue we need to be mindful with our words. Civility and the display of respect has declined on a national level and I see it as the duty of the assembly and all of us to lead by example and communicate with each other with respect. I practice respectful conversation by taking ownership for my words and actions, and engaging in effective listening. Respect is key. As assembly members and citizens of Haines it is time to raise the bar and demonstrate civil, respectful conversation and debate.
Gaffney: I have served on a number of boards and participated in our government for decades (Haines Chamber of Commerce, Haines Economic Development Corporation, tourism advisory board, American Bald Eagle Foundation, Great Alaska Council of the Boy Scouts of America and work with one of the Juneau Economic Development Corps working groups) and I have a strong record of working together collaboratively and effectively. Civil discourse and respectful speech are central to this, and I have always done my best to hold myself to a high standard in this regard. If I am given the opportunity to serve on the assembly, I will bring these qualities to our work.
Should the borough consider an up to a 1 percent sales tax increase to pay for solid waste services?
McGuire: Overall I am not in favor of dedicated taxes, they always cause problems down the road. For funding solid waste see Question 1. We are running out of space at the dump and the dedicated volunteers at the recycle Center can only do so much. We need to provide funds to sort trash-hopefully mostly self-sorted at transfer stations both in the upper valley and near town-- and to send a good part of it to dumps in the lower 48, if that is the best destination. Most of all we all need to buy local (there’s far less packaging as a rule) and generally produce less trash in the first place.
Thomas: The voters must approve all increases in sales tax. In order to win voter support we need to develop a comprehensive plan that includes what services will be provided, how they will be provided, what it will cost for the services, and the specifics of how the plan will be paid for, i.e. all from sales tax revenue or a combination of sales tax and tipping fees. In the meantime, we need to access our immediate needs to see if there are some solutions we can address in the next year.
Rogers: Solid waste management is not a simple issue. The proposal that has been considered would put a local company out of business and might leave the borough financially responsible for the damages caused to that local business. There are steps we could take to deal with some of the more important problems. We can add convenient transfer stations for residents within the townsite and those some distance from town. Convenient disposal sites for tourists could also be added. Any proposal for waste services should be more specific, including an operational plan, costs estimates, and revenue generation. The plan would have to win the support of the residents.
Sincerny: Before raising taxes we need to have a discussion on how we can reduce the waste coming into town and waste going into the landfill. We need to focus on preventing items from being thrown away through increased re-use and recycling efforts. How can we divert construction waste and other big items before they enter the landfill? Can we re-use them or sell them at a second-hand materials exchange? Let’s look at increasing the composting efforts already happening in town that keep material out of the landfill and provide essential building blocks for gardening and farming. We need to examine how we can raise more of our food locally which will reduce packaging and create local jobs. Let’s explore making more locally made furniture, toys, instruments that would reduce the influx of packaging materials and create jobs in the process.
Gaffney: Solid waste disposal is a growing, real concern for the borough, but I would like to look at all other options for addressing it before considering an additional 1 percent sales tax.
A recent report on the social impacts of mining on rural communities, and former state economist Greg Erikson, described some possible adverse impacts on Haines due to the nature and culture of an industrial mining operation here. Do you think those concerns are valid? If so, what can and should the borough do to prevent them from becoming a reality?
McGuire: The report described multiple impacts of large mines on small towns, and made it clear that most jobs would go to non-locals. We can expect hundreds of miners to descend on town at the end of each two-week shift, with housing (cost and availability) a real issue for both miners and residents. Alcoholism, drugs and crime typically go up, and so also the cost of police. Itinerant miners tend to rent, not buy, so don’t pay property tax; local property owners would pay for the additional police, school for families the miners might bring, and so on. We’d have ore trucks racing through town and they’d want an ore terminal. Are these concerns valid? Of course. What’s the solution? Don’t build the mine. Those who want it have some explaining to do.
Thomas: It’s important to contrast the challenges addressed in these reports to experiences of Alaska mining communities. We have residents in Haines that work at mines in Juneau. They are upstanding members of our community and are just trying to make a better living and had to leave their homes and families to do so. If the Palmer Project progresses the exploration site into mine status then the borough should open communications with the mining company to discuss policies to benefit the community. One important requirement should be a commitment from the mine operator to maintain a minimum percentage of local hire in their workforce. I love this valley just as much as anyone else and value my salmon. That’s the attitude every local would bring to the job. We also need to plan ahead to maximize long-term benefits in hydropower, tour sites, infrastructure, training centers/tech schools, and housing.
Rogers: It is critical to consider community impacts both positive and negative, of a potential mine. The community needs open communication to develop effective policies to mitigate potential negative impacts. The commissioned report makes reference to “transient population moving in and out of local communities” and states the importance of studying similar circumstances in other communities. The report highlights mining operations in Darwin, Australia, Appalachia coal mining, and the boom oil development in North Dakota. We can use this information to compare to Alaska’s experience with mining workforce at Greens Creek and Kensington for example, and Alaska’s current transient workforce. Haines has a transient workforce working seasonally in tourism, fishing, and construction. I personally know both men and women in the mining and oil industries who are wonderful people and they live right here in Haines.
Sincerny: Erickson and Powers independently described the typical social and economic impacts of large mines on small towns. Both made it clear that most jobs would go to non-locals. At the end of each two-week shift we can expect several hundred miners to descend on our town. Housing will become a hardship due to skyrocketing costs and decreased availability. Alcoholism, drug use, crime and assault will go up, and with it the cost of police service and increased strain on our medical facilities. Since most itinerant miners tend to rent, and not buy property they will not be paying taxes and therefore locals will be the ones covering the costs for more emergency services. Additionally we would have a continuous march of ore trucks up and down the highway and through town for years. These are all real and valid concerns. No other community has been able to effectively offset these impacts.
Gaffney: I believe some of the concerns are valid. If a mine does come to be, it is incumbent on the assembly to work to mitigate any challenges, and maximize the benefit, for our community. I have advocated that if the borough is going to take a position on the mine, that it should come by way of an advisory vote of the citizens, and not a simple vote of the assembly.
To what degree, if any, should tourism be expanded?
McGuire: I assume this question is whether we should try to bring in yet more cruise ships. I don’t know the answer other than to say that tourism is now a very important part of our local economy, and we’ve been paying a lot to encourage it. Lots of places around the world are now limiting cruise ships though.We do need to get the Ocean Ranger program back that Dunleavy vetoed so as to at least address one part of the problem.
Thomas: There is always room for expansion if the positive and negative impacts of growth are addressed. We can extend the shoulder season by getting creative and finding ways tourists can arrive earlier and stay later through festivals, conferences, and events; develop a winter recreational economy by offering borough incentives to restaurants and new business ventures, and invest in tourism that promotes downtown as an attraction so our small businesses and retailers don’t take such a big hit with the loss of large ships next year. I believe that a solid plan to increase year-round tourism will allow businesses to hire more residents and generate more economic activity, as long it meets community standards for sustainability.
Rogers: Tourism is an important aspect of our economy. Our focus should be to develop sustainable tourism that allows the community to continue to benefit from tourism throughout the year, and at the same time mitigate the impact that any new or increased tourism will have on the environment and residents. Overcrowding of specific locations, demands on our infrastructure, and activities that put people or wildlife in danger need to be considered. Tourism is beneficial to our economy, but it needs to be in balance with our residents’ quality of life, our natural resources, and our unique wildlife.
Sincerny: Yes, we should be focused on expanding tourism. I support increasing the number of year-round events, especially in the shoulder and winter seasons. Every event that brings folks from out of town increases business in town. We should also be focusing on reaching out and securing more dockings of small cruise ships and marketing Haines as a “real” Alaskan town, not just another tourist destination. People already come to Haines for its natural beauty and uniqueness, if we focus on that visitors will come. We cannot change the fact that some big ships will be using Skagway over Haines since they own many of the stores and much of the infrastructure. We need to improve the access for people to come to Haines for tours and shopping in our locally owned stores after they have docked in Skagway.
Gaffney: We should continue to support a broad-based approach to visitor industry marketing including working to attract independents, rubber tire track, cruise traffic, and regional guests from Juneau and Whitehorse. The visitor industry has been an important part of our economy for 30 years and has great potential to be a strong part for the next 30 and into the future. In the near term it has significant potential to have positive impacts on the borough’s ability to meet our financial goals of providing a range of services and a balanced budget. It is also important to continue to work to address challenges associated with its growth such as with cell communications.
The Haines Borough police chief has advocated for an increased budget and boroughwide policing. Where do you stand on this?
McGuire: I live at Lutak which gets hundreds, maybe thousands of tourists a day in the summer on our short stretch of river as well as gazillions of sport fishermen mixed with a whole lot of bears. It’s a toxic brew which could, in my opinion, use a lot more police presence. Others feel differently and that’s fine by me; they shouldn’t have to pay for something they don’t want. I do understand that the police chief feels that his department is overstressed. I would most likely defer to his judgement though if something has to be cut for schools it might be that.
Thomas: First of all, I fully support the chief and his staff and all that they have brought to our community. At this time my concern for an increased budget for areawide policing is that if we take on too much of the financial burden, we risk losing state support for funding. Looking to the future I will consider budget increases due to the impacts of a growing infrastructure such as increased highway speeds on improved roads, traffic increases, and increased economic development.
Rogers: Haines Borough has a population of less than 2,500 residents. We have very little crime compared to other communities of similar size. Boroughwide policing would be very costly due mostly to the vast geography, remote areas, and difficulty reaching many locations. In order to provide boroughwide police services additional officers and additional equipment such as boats, ATVs, and snowmachines would be required just for starters. I don’t believe that the public is convinced that there is a need for this level of service. Certainly, we can discuss the provision of “emergency responses” outside the townsite in the absence of the Alaska State Troopers. However, I would want to see a ground swell of public support along with a plan for revenue generation for the services before expanding the police budget or general police services on a borough wide basis.
Sincerny: The entire borough needs to have emergency police services. This is fundamental to our community and a basic need of society. Borough code appears to support this service. Areas outside the townsite should not have to pay for non-emergency police service if that is their desire.
Gaffney: I believe the borough has determined that the charter does allow for emergency response for the police department outside the townsite area. The community outside of the townsite voted on this recently, I believe the voters should be respected.
Which three pieces of infrastructure in Haines takes priority in the next five years? In the next 20 years?
McGuire: Finishing fixing the Lutak Dock would be #1 since all our freight comes in there and it’s in a dangerous condition. Also, we need to be thinking about alternative energy. Haines has two huge tides a day and we could certainly harness that to run everything in town. This is particularly important as fossil fuel is in tighter supply. My third priority would be a proper plan for Haines’ trash. I don’t like to see stuff dumped in the woods or the ocean. But a big honorable mention goes to getting work on a more 21st century Internet. Not just for us regular citizens; every business in town depends on it. And get the cruise ships to stop piggybacking on it. Even buses nowadays have free Internet, cruise ships can afford it, too.
Thomas: 5 years - Lutak Dock: We need to continue to pressure the manager to find funding sources and report on this status more frequently. New water source: With the current droughts we have been experiencing every summer this should be highly prioritized. We live in Alaska and to not have clean drinking water readily available is unacceptable. I believe the new facilities director has put this on as one of his top priorities and I look forward to seeing what ideas he and the manager develop. Power: Our deep-sea power cable from Skagway is vulnerable and I don’t want to see us forced into using diesel backup power because we didn’t have a plan. We need to look at energy security and clean energy alternatives.
20 years - school: The school will continually need work done, but by 20 years I can see it not being big enough or inefficient as things continue to change. Water mains and sewer lines: I would like to know what the expected life span is on the existing system. Having been involved in its installation back when I was in high school leads me to believe they may be getting close to their life expectancy. Letnikof Cove: This piece of infrastructure has had very limited maintenance done to it and it is continually beat by the north wind. Some sort of breakwater that could help protect the cove and its users would greatly improve that area.
Rogers: The three most important infrastructure items needed to serve Haines Borough in the next five years are: 1) Townsite water source 2) Lutak Dock 3) Public Safety Building. Important infrastructure items in the next 20 years we should prioritize: 1) sewer and water line upgrades 2) floats for the harbor 3) road improvements.
Sincerny: The top priority is to finish the Lutak Dock. This is a lifeline for our town for goods and food and needs attention. We should focus on expanding renewable energy options to move away from fossil fuels and on to sustainable and renewable energy sources that will make Haines more self-reliant. Additionally we should be focusing on ways to improve our Internet capacity which could involve cruise lines getting passengers to use ship Internet services by offering lower prices or paying for infrastructure in Haines that would support greater capacity. It is imperative that our communications systems do not get overwhelmed when ships and visitors are in port. We need to be able to run our daily businesses and make personal calls. In the next 20 years we should be focusing on more recreational opportunities such as trails and recreation sites. We need to focus on moving to renewable energy sources, and solidifying our communication systems.
Gaffney: In the near term the Lutak Dock, the public safety building, and developing an additional water source. In the longer term we need to be prepared to deal with numerous infrastructure needs including maintenance of borough owned properties and road infrastructure. We should also work to improve our communications/Internet capabilities both to address current deficiencies, and as a mechanism to bring more location-neutral workers to the Haines Borough.