Three candidates are vying for the Matanuska Susitna Borough’s mayor’s seat. Incumbent Larry DeVilbiss seeks re-election, and he’s is being challenged by Assemblyman Vern Halter and dark horse candidate Rosemary Vavrin.
KSKA reporter Ellen Lockyer talked to each candidate about their campaigns and their visions for the Borough.
The election is scheduled for Tuesday, October 6. Voters will be asked to decide on three Assembly seats and two ballot propositions.
Larry DeVilbiss: The incumbent
It’s breakfast time at a Palmer eatery, and Mat Su Mayor Larry DeVilbiss’s smartphone is buzzing relentlessly in his pocket.
The shuttering of the Knik contract post office is the crisis du jour, and DeVilbiss, over hot chocolate, says he’ll personally contact the U.S. Postal Service about that. DeVilbiss, 71,a farmer and rancher, comes from a ’50s-era homesteading family. He’s got one more field of hay to harvest, and keeps one eye on the weather.
“We’ve had a real light year for hay. Until last week when I cut my last field, I was concerned that there wouldn’t be enough hay to get through the winter. But the last field, there’s a good yield of hay there.”
He raises beef cattle, but despite his farming interests, he says he’s pro-development.
“Three years ago, I was the brunt of a couple of thousand people who put all their efforts into getting me out of office because I supported the Usibelli coal mine permit. My drive and one of my main focuses on being mayor is to try to develop our local economy and bring it home. We have for many years been a bedroom community to Anchorage and to the North Slope. “
He says he’d like to see at least some of the tax burden shifted from Borough homeowners to commercial interests. The Mat Su is different from Kenai, Fairbanks and Anchorage, he says, because those areas get almost a third of their tax base from commercial and oil interests.
State assessors put the Borough’s entire worth at $9 billion. DeVilbiss says if the Borough’s Port MacKenzie expansion and a related railroad spur project are completed, LNG businesses could locate there.
“On just a single leaseholder project is in the magnitude of a billion dollars. Well that immediately shifts one ninth of our tax load on to a property that is providing jobs.”
DeVilbiss has been in the mayor’s seat since 2011, when he was appointed to finish out the term of the previous Borough mayor. He his next election and, if elected again, will term out after 2018.
DeVilbiss has seen a lot of changes in the Valley, and in the representation on the Borough Assembly.
“I think one of my traits of leadership is being able to work, even in a negative atmosphere, with congeniality. Since I’ve been mayor, we’ve had a very good relationship working with the school board and the school administration.”
He says he’s attempted to push out the boundaries of the mayor’s position as a figurehead and tie-breaker:
“I spend a lot of time attending boards and commissions that mayors have never been to, I make the appointments to those boards, so I am responsible for them, so I try to show up as often as I can.”
Despite his successful election bids, he’s met criticism for his liberal use of mayoral veto power.
“…And most of my vetos either have to do with improper notice on issues that have come up, or on negative impact on the tax rate.”
DeVilbiss says one of his future goals is making public meetings more accessible to Valley residents.
“When my vision is complete, people in Talkeetna and Willow, instead of driving down here to testify for three minutes, will be able to get on a video teleconference line and speak to us directly.”
The incumbent says he’s kept his promise of no more school bonds within five years , and points to the Borough’s improvements in new and old schools, transportation and improved fish runs during his term of office.
Vern Halter: The musher, the Assemblyman and the challenger
Attorney, dog driver and Mat Su Asssemblyman Vern Halter has represented the Borough’s District 7 for two terms. Now he has his eyes on the Borough mayor’s seat.
Sixty-six-year-old Halter — a veteran, a lawyer and a 38-year Alaska resident — has a colorful background as a former Kodiak law clerk, an Unalaska judge and now operator of Dream a Dream Kennel in Willow.
Over coffee in Palmer, Halter says he’s quite different from the incumbent DeVilbiss.
“I am not a Republican, I am not a Democrat, I am a centrist conservative, coalition builder, and I think I could converse with our delegation as well or better, even thought they are supporting him, at this point in time, than the mayor.”
Halter lives a rural lifestyle in Willow, but says he leans toward more development in the Mat Su.
“Heck yes. I don’t really think we need a ton of rules that hinder businesses. I think we have to have certain rules, you know, to protect society.”
Halter recently successfully sponsored a Borough-wide musher’s rights ordinance. He says he is not a staunch environmentalist, but he does oppose the Susitna dam.
“The dam, the Susitna dam was a mistake. You know it cost us $200-400 million dollars, and that money is forgone now. And then you have the Big Su River, it will alter that forever. You are talking about salvaging salmon, which is a huge mission of the Mat Su Borough and the state of Alaska. Well that will finish it off,” Halter says. “So we have to be careful of those, those mega projects that don’t seem to have good footing. The Bridge is different. I’ve always supported the [Knik Arm] bridge. I think that one should be pushed.”
At a recent AARP sponsored mayoral debate, Halter said schools are the Borough’s number one priority, and pointed to the success of the Borough’s school bond package that passed in 2011.
Halters’ biggest bone of contention with the present Borough mayor is the use of the mayoral veto power.
“I think sometime when you use a veto power just to veto, or as a power itself, is very frustrating,” he says. “And a lot of the vetos that I though have come down — the library funds for Palmer and Wasilla, they are a partner with the Borough, we have residents from the Borough going into the city libraries, we were giving them $40,000-$50,000 grant per year. The mayor vetoed those. I would not veto those. I think that is a good partnership with the cities, It shows our intent with them. The mayor vetoed the road bonds in 2011. If it has not been overridden, it would not have gone to the voters that fall. ”
DeVilbiss says he vetoed the road bond package because it was “false advertising” to include trails in the bond.
Halter is also concerned about the mayor’s veto of a Borough grant to fund a Sexual Assault Response Team.
Halter says the coming years will be lean ones, and, since property owners are still going to be the main source of Borough revenue, he aims to keep the mill rate low.
“And my goal would never to go above ten and keep it as low as we possibly can.”
He says the Borough has to prioritize projects that need the most attention. The completion of the railroad spur from Port Mackenzie to Houston is a major need, and the most pressing issue is very basic… septage. Greywater and human waste is trucked to Anchorage from the Valley to sanitation facilities in the city. Halter says a $28 million Borough project for a local septage facility is a top priority.
Rosemary Vavrin: From left field, campaigning on public transit
Unexpected candidate Rosemary Vavrin commutes by bus and works as a volunteer at the Wasilla Senior Center. Vavrin, 70, originally from Texas, has spent over 30 years in Alaska, the past four in the Mat-Su. The former high school teacher and media freelancer now advocates for seniors. She recently spoke at a mayoral debate panel sponsored by AARP.
Vavrin is passionate about one issue… transportation.
“Most folks know me because I speak up on the need for expanded and increased transit in the entire area,” she says. “The number one need we have in the Mat Su Borough is transit.”
Vavrin says that many of the Mat Su Borough’s problems could be solved by simply improving how people get from one place to another.
“I would prioritize by putting transportation needs first. People need to get to jobs, they need to get to services, they need to get to medical care. And they need to get to fun events, like the fair. They need to get to the political events, like this forum. Trasit also helps to keep a lot of cars off the roads. Transit helps with pollution, or cuts down pollution.”
Vavrin says she adopted bus transportation as her campaign platform, because the Borough transportation committee meets during the day, and there is bus service at that time.
The candidate is candid about not being up on some Borough issues, such as a tax on gravel extraction.
“At such time as I have the title of Mayor Rosemary, that’s one of the things I would be wise to investigate. At this point, I don’t know enough about it.”
Vavrin supports less school crowding, based on her high school teaching career.
“The classes that were smaller in size had higher grade average, because I was able to give them more time. And yes, we need to find new ways to spread out the money, whether it is using technology. But yes, it is a problem, I’ve experienced it myself and I’ve experienced the benefits of smaller class sizes. ”
And she is vehemently opposed to marijuana use.
Borough elections are set for Tuesday, October 6, and voters will be asked to decide on three Assembly seats, seats and two ballot propositions.