Judging from his first appearance in the limelight as the uncontested mayor of Kalispell, Mark Johnson appears confident and well prepared for his first foray into public service.
Just over a month away from the municipal election, Johnson and six other candidates for the city council gave public stump speeches to members of the community last week, appearing at the monthly Kalispell Chamber of Commerce luncheon Sept. 24.
Johnson, a political newcomer born and raised in Whitefish with a background as a financial advisor, provided residents a first glimpse of their presumptive future mayor, saying he’s eager to wield the gavel with the power of a bat.
He did not shy away from thorny subjects or bold statements.
Johnson infused a fresh perspective into the roiling debate over whether to seek federal funding to upgrade the 84-year-old airport in south Kalispell, a contentious decision that voters will settle Nov. 5.
Johnson, who described himself as pro-business and fiscally conservative, sided with the Chamber of Commerce’s official stance in support of the airport upgrades, saying he would most likely vote in favor of updating the site, contingent on there being secured financing before any projects go forward.
Johnson said his decision largely hinges on the city’s responsibility to maintain the site’s safety standards, and the risk that if federal funding is not used then Kalispell could get stuck paying $1.6 million for those improvements in the future.
“If we don’t expand and we don’t have a safe runway, we will have to spend millions out of what fund? Where does that money come from?” he asked the crowd inside the Red Lion Hotel conference room.
In regards to the longstanding issue, Johnson took the current council to task for “its failure to lead,” pointing at multiple back-and-forth votes, “flawed” studies and the recent inability to provide voters with a summary of facts.
“They have not dug in and found the answers to make a good decision,” he said. “Now they’re expecting us to make an uneducated decision.”
Johnson did praise the council for its efforts in other areas, most notably the financial rebound that has occurred through the recession. From 2009 to present, the city has built back its reserve fund from $246,000 to $1.9 million.
“This council has done a tremendous job,” he said.
Johnson, who moved back to the Flathead Valley in 1995, explained his reasoning for running as a selfish one; he has seven kids and wants them to stay in Kalispell and find good jobs, which means helping the city flourish as the Flathead Valley’s business hub.
“I’m hoping to use this position to benefit business people in the valley and the city of Kalispell,” he said.
He raised concerns about city regulations and impact fees that potentially stifle business and create inequalities, and said he supports repealing the state’s business equipment tax.
“We need a fair and equal tax system within the state of Montana,” he said.
He also expressed support for a local option sales tax, similar to Whitefish’s, which reduces residents’ property taxes to counterbalance a percentage fee on purchases to pay for infrastructure like roads. State law currently prohibits a city the size of Kalispell from implementing a local option sales tax, which is common among resort towns.
“I want to be an effective leader as mayor,” he said. “I want to be able to go down to Helena and tell the Legislature down there the people of Kalispell need these things.”
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