Assembly overturns 60-percent rule for sales tax cap increase

Voters and taxes dominated a nearly four-hour Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly meeting Tuesday night.

While the assembly postponed its vote on an ordinance that would require borough elections to be held by mail, it did narrowly pass an ordinance to change the 60 percent voter approval requirement to a simple majority to increase the cap on sales tax. 

Assembly member Brent Johnson of Kasilof sponsored the ordinance. He gave three reasons for introducing the ordinance.

According to borough code, sales tax can only be applied to the first $500 of each sale. Johnson said while that number stays the same, inflation occurs, so it is “improper to set it at a super-majority threshold.” 

Voters passed the initiative to set the 60 percent requirement to change the sales tax in 2005 by 54.2 percent. Johnson said while it’s noble to try to keep taxes down, he doesn’t think it’s noble that 54 percent of voters can set a 60 percent threshold.

“Could they have chose 70 percent?” Johnson said. “Could 51 percent of the people choose a threshold of 80 percent? It’s completely capricious.” 

He said it is a matter of equality. Considering the issue by individuals, if someone wants to change the sales tax, his or her vote isn’t equal to those who do not want change.

“Everybody is equal and everybody should have an equal vote,” Johnson said.

Assembly member Charlie Pierce said he can see the merits in the presented points, but didn’t want to undermine the initiative process.

Assembly member Kelly Wolf said it was an “embarrassment” to consider the ordinance; the assembly needs to listen to the voters.

If there is a funding crisis, assembly member Wayne Ogle said voters can consider that and he doesn’t think there will be a problem to get 60 percent of voters to pass a sales tax increase.

Johnson said he doesn’t like to get into a crisis and have to scramble to adjust funds to account for a crisis. 

The ordinance passed with five votes in favor cast by assembly members Johnson, Bill Smith, Hal Smalley, Sue McClure and Mako Haggerty. 

The assembly postponed an ordinance to hold elections by-mail to the July 1 meeting to allow for time for a resolution to come forward to ask for an advisory vote at the Oct. 7 election.

Assembly member Dale Bagley said an ordinance that changes the way elections are held should go to voters.

“I just think going through a process to vote on this would be very good education for people in the borough,” he said.

Originally, it was thought that holding borough elections by mail would be more cost effective, but according to a fiscal note, it would actually cost more money.

“I was disappointed because I initially thought … that we could actually save money, but the extra printing and postage costs added up,” said Smith in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting.

However, the assumed savings were a secondary consideration, Smith said about the ordinance he sponsored to require vote-by-mail elections. His main motive is to increase voter participation.

Last year, the borough saw about 21 percent of voters turn out, which Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said is “dismal at best.”

While costs are estimated to rise if elections are held by mail, Smith called the increase modest.

According to a fiscal note prepared by Borough Clerk Johni Blankenship, costs for mayoral election years are estimated to increase by $57,420 and by $23,090 for non-mayoral election years, if the assembly approves vote-by-mail elections.

The largest savings would be in personnel costs with a decrease of $10,910. Three boards — logic and accuracy testing, absentee voting officials and canvass — would require only 30 people compared to 116 for polling place elections. “We kept everything except for day-of-election workers,” Blankenship said in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting.

Contract services, which includes ballot stuffing and out-the-door postage cost, would see one of the highest increases at $19,750. The borough pays for return postage for the voted ballots as well. “We also have a charge, a pretty large charge, when they are returned undeliverable,” Blankenship said.

However, returned undeliverable ballots, Blankenship said, will help the borough to verify bad residential addresses.

Of the 28 precincts within the borough, six are currently absentee-by-mail only.

For people who prefer to vote in person, absentee-voting stations will be available 15 days before Election Day at the borough clerk’s office at the George A. Navarre Administration Building in Soldotna, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Annex office in Homer and the nearest city clerk’s office.

The borough is able to consider by-mail elections because the Alaska Legislature passed Senate Bill 213 this year, which eliminates the need for election boards for each precinct. Requiring an election board for each precinct for local governments that want to hold by-mail or electronic elections is costly and wasteful, Micciche said, according to an April press release.

“It’s a simple bill, but I think the results, hopefully, will result in more Alaskans becoming engaged in local elections and ultimately becoming more interested in the results of those elections,” Micciche said.

Micciche said he thinks local governments that choose to hold by-mail elections in Alaska will see a dramatic increase in voter participation because it will be more convenient for rural residents.

“If we try (by-mail elections) for a couple of years and it doesn’t work out, we can always go back,” Smith said. “It’s not the end of the world.”

 

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