Council nixes library cuts

In a meeting that ran to 10:30 Monday night, the Homer City Council at its regular meeting defeated several contentious last-minute budget amendments. About 60 people filled the Cowles Council Chambers to voice fierce opposition to several proposals, including:

• A proposal by council member Tom Stroozas to cut $65,443 or 10 percent from the Homer Public Library personnel budget. The proposal was defeated by six no votes, including one from Stroozas.

• Another Stroozas proposal to increase the employee share of health insurance payments to $75,000 was defeated on a vote of 4-2, with Stroozas and council member Shelly Erickson voting yes;

• Proposals by council member Heath Smith and Stroozas to eliminate a 1.5-percent cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, pay increase, a $130,636 savings, and also imposing a hiring freeze for all departments except police and fire were defeated 3 no, 2 yes, with Stroozas and Smith voting yes and council member Donna Aderhold recused because of a conflict of interest; and

• A proposal by Smith eliminating merit pay increases, a $102,931 savings, died for lack of a motion.

City employees joined teachers, professors, bar owners and lawyers to speak out against the budget amendments and urge the council to pass the $21.6 million balanced budget introduced by City Manager Katie Koester.

At its November meeting, Koester’s draft budget emerged in better shape thanks to city lobbyist Linda Anderson pulling her lobbying proposal of $44,000. The city also got an estimated increase of 10.4 percent for health insurance premiums, less than the 20 percent increase Koester had estimated in her initial budget.

Most of the testimony and letters were against the library staff cuts. If approved, library director Ann Dixon said the library would have to close one more day a week and cut hours on three other days. Stroozas said the cut would result in a reduction of five to six hours and would not affect the library’s quality. More than 60 people sent letters, and 11 testified against cutting the library budget.

“The library is the last bastille of our true history, and preserver of fact. Libraries do that, for everyone,” said Nelton Palma, owner of The Alibi bar. “Libraries serve a vital social service by helping bridge the gap between the haves and the have nots. … The public library is one of the few places where people are still treated as citizens rather than consumers.”

“To cut the library is like cutting the soul of our society,” said David Raskin, a retired psychology professor.

“Libraries are places where people come to know themselves and their communities,” said Carolyn Norton, a lifelong Homer resident. “The library doesn’t belong to anyone. The library belongs to everyone.”

At a presentation at the council meeting, Paul Banks Elementary School Principal Eric Pederson briefed the council on upcoming school bus route changes and school start times that would mean younger students would get out earlier. The library might see more children going there after school with the new start and end time changes. Friends of the Homer Public Library Coordinator Mercedes Harness picked up on that theme in her testimony.

“We don’t have a homeless shelter. We don’t have a community center. We don’t have a Boys and Girls Club, but we do have a thriving library,” she said.

In a report for the Library Advisory Board, chair Marcia Kauszmal provided some statistics on library use. For this November compared to November 2015, the library saw 14,000 items checked out compared to 12,000 last year, with 11,000 visits compared to 9,000 in 2015. Internet use is up 20 percent.

“We continue to see the trend of double-digit growth,” she said.

At the Committee of the Whole meeting, Stroozas defended his proposal to cut the library when council member Donna Aderhold asked him for his rationale.

“We have a balanced budget only because we’re in essence redirecting funds from the HART fund,” Stroozas said.

He referred to a citizen vote last year to put revenues from a .75-percent sales tax dedicated to the Homer Accelerated Roads and Trails fund into the general fund for three years. The 2017 budget will be the second year of that suspension of revenues to the HART fund. That was the same rationale council member Heath Smith made for proposing cuts to city personnel costs.

Those cuts also ran into opposition. Public Works employee Todd Cook said city workers have taken cuts in benefits or been asked to pay more for health insurance.

“The budget has already been balanced. I would encourage you to vote on the budget as it is and the city manager has presented it,” he said.

A business owner, Nancy Hillstrand of Coal Point Seafoods, spoke in favor of fiscal conservatism.

“I know my employees and me have lost revenue over the last few years,” she said. “I ask you to do anything to tighten the budget. … Please do everything we can to keep within a balanced budget in the city of Homer.”

A city employee’s wife, Christine Szocinski, said it was unfair to spring the personnel cut amendments at the last minute. In discussions on budget amendments, council member David Lewis agreed with that point.

“It would have been nice to have brought this up in October rather than dropping this in our laps. We could have had a meaningful discussion,” he said.

Szocinski said her family had absorbed too many insurance increases without getting any COLA.

“We don’t have any more money to give you. We don’t have any more money for health care,” she said. “I think we need to step back and go with what Katie proposed.”

That’s what the council wound up doing. On the proposal to have city workers pay more for the increase in health insurance costs, on a suggestion from Matt Clarke of the City Employee Committee to meet employees half-way, the council amended the share from $75,000 to $38,000 — but struck down the main motion.

The council also defeated the other proposals to eliminate COLA, merit increases and impose a wage and hiring freeze. It did pass an amendment by council member Catriona Reynolds to reduce overtime by 15 percent.

“I hear loud and clear the reasons not to address the city employee income,” she said. “I feel overtime is a different place.”

Reynolds amendment would save $52,318, of which $6,000 went to the Homer Foundation, which offers a grant program to Homer nonprofits, and $46,318 to City Hall reserves to help pay for a new roof.

The only other amendment that passed was by council member Shelly Erickson to increase the Public Works light-duty pickup truck request to $40,000, but stipulate it buy two used trucks and not one new truck. Another Erickson amendment to eliminate $10,000 for park signage to explain new beach policy changes was defeated.

In the end in a vote on the budget ordinance as a whole, amendments and all, the council approved it by five yes votes, with Smith voting no.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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