Homer got its first look at most of the Homer City Council candidates last Friday for the Friends of the Homer Public Library debate. Moderator Michael Hawfield, a Kachemak Bay Campus history professor, asked each candidate a set of questions. Audience members also submitted written questions. Issues covered the A-B-C’s of civic issues, from C for cannabis to B for budget and, well, A for anything.
The candidates sat on high stools before the library fireplace like participants in the 1960s cult TV show, “The Dating Game.” With a 3-minute response time limit, candidates made the debate feel like several rounds of speed dating.
Five of the seven candidates on the ballot debated: Joni Wise, Donna Aderhold, Beauregard Burgess, Tom Stroozas and Heath Smith. Candidate Robert “Bob” Howard, 73, was in Switzerland hiking with his son Chris on a trip he’d planned well before he filed to run for city council.
“I know I missed a wonderful opportunity on Friday,” Howard said.
Another name on the ballot, Micheal Neece, announced last week that he had withdrawn from the race and did not seek election. Because the deadline had passed to officially step aside, Neece’s name will still be on the ballot for the election on Oct. 6. Citizens can vote on two candidates, with the top two vote-getters winning two, 3-year seats.
The debate began with each candidate introducing herself or himself. They spoke from left-to-right in the order they happened to sit.
Wise, 35, introduced herself as the mother of six children, including a foster child she and husband Marty Wise recently have taken in. A homemaker, she also keeps the books for her husband’s electrical contracting and fishing businesses.
“I felt like things were going in a direction I did not like in Homer,” she said. “I was complaining too much and not acting. Here I am, acting.”
Aderhold, 53, a wildlife biologist who telecommutes in Homer with an Anchorage environmental consulting firm, cited her work experience looking for common ground between citizens and businesses.
“I’m running because I love Homer. Of all the places I’ve lived, I love Homer most,” she said.
Burgess, 30, the only incumbent on the ballot, noted he’s running on the strength of his record. He was appointed in April 2012 and elected in October 2012.
“The only reason I’m sitting up here before you is because time and time again I had people come up here and say, ‘We really appreciate the job you’re doing and want you to run for council again,’” he said.
Stroozas, 63, has received the endorsement of Homer Voice for Business, a business advocacy group started out of frustration with water and sewer rates. He publishes a guide to Southcentral Alaska restaurants and is a retired sales manager for a North Carolina natural gas company.
“I offer myself with business experience to promote fiscal responsibility,” he said. “I will listen. I have two ears and one mouth and I should listen twice as much as I speak.”
Smith, 50, has lived in Alaska all his life and in Homer since elementary school. He is a driver for United Parcel Service.
“I have a great appreciation for Kachemak Bay and the Homer area,” he said. “I have six children. I want this to be a place they can grow up and stand in awe of.”
With about a $1 million funding gap compared to last year, the budget dominated the debate. Hawfield asked candidates if they would meet the shortfall through cuts or new revenues, and to give examples.
“I think we need to cut across the board,” Wise said. “We need to make those hard decisions.”
Wise also advocated for increasing overall revenues like building a bigger dock at the harbor to keep boats in town.
Aderhold agreed attracting new business to Homer was a good thing, but said the city also needs new revenues.
“We need to bring in some revenues ourselves through some combination of taxes, whether they be property taxes or sales taxes,” she said.
Burgess took issue with the $1 million figure for a shortfall. When not funding depreciation reserves is considered, the amount actually is higher.
“I want to frame the discussion around real viable options. You can’t cut our budget in any substantial way without affecting our core services,” he said. “We’re going to have to raise some revenues.”
Stroozas said in his 30 years working in a public utility, he knows what it’s like when cuts have to be made.
“It’s painful. You have to do some soul searching. Tough choices,” he said. “It’s got to be a balanced decision. Balance and reason are going to get us through this issue.”
Smith suggested looking at funds like the Homer Accelerated Roads and Transportation Fund.
“I don’t think the sky is falling. We have some time to do this. The city has some savings,” he said. “I’m positive if we work together we can come to a solution. We’ll have everything we need. It might not be everything we want.”
In a follow-up, one written question from an audience member pushed for specific examples of cuts.
“I don’t think that’s a fair question,” Smith said. “For them to say we have to flat-out cut services, show me what that looks like.”
Wise said she agreed with Smith.
“I know at the top I would cut nonessentials. I would cut the animal shelter’s funding. They get more than Haven House,” she said.
The city already has been cutting, with positions either cut or left vacant, Aderhold said. Public Works is overworked and can’t keep up with maintenance.
“The alternative? Do we say we don’t want the library? Do we want to give planning back to the borough?” she asked.
Burgess said the choice is simple: raise revenues or eliminate some departments.
“If you want to cut something, it’s going to be significant things,” he said. “The choice is kick the can down the road, take action now and have it be less painful, or do nothing and eliminate departments.”
“You can’t cut ourselves to prosperity,” Stroozas said. “I do know one thing. We can run the city like a business and figure more cost-effective ways of providing city services.”
Another question asked how Homer could serve its senior citizens.
Smith said Homer needs more housing for seniors. Wise said we need to increase health facilities. Aderhold talked about the property tax exemption mandated in state law at $150,000 and set at $300,000 by the Kenai Peninsula Borough for resident seniors.
“Seniors also need to be willing to help pay for that (services) in some way or form by reducing that senior exemption. I’m probably going to make myself unpopular with that statement,” she said.
Burgess offered his own family experience as to how to serve seniors. With his father, Tony Burgess, a retired scientist, he built an intergenerational home in the East Hill Road area.
“I think you make it a good place for seniors when you make it a good place for young people,” Burgess said.
At the close of the debate, Hawfield praised all the candidates for running for office.
“I can’t say enough about people who run for office and their nightmare comes true and they get elected to office,” he said.
Other questions covered topics like how to or if the city should fund nonprofit organizations, how to promote economic development, if Homer should continue a seasonal exemption on taxing food, how to improve the quality of life in Homer, how to balance growth and environmental protection, what Homer’s beach policy should be, and the “bud” question, how Homer should approach cannabis. For more on what the candidates had to say, see below.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Homer City Council candidate responses to other questions:
Question: Is it one of the functions of the city government to foster community?
Joni Wise: “(Nonprofits are important. We should have them. If we don’t have the revenue to support them, people should support them privately.”
Donna Aderhold: “Community to me goes way beyond the city. a community is what each individual who lives in or near the city puts into it.”
Beauregard Burgess: “Government should seek to create a safe level and equitable playing field and get out of the way. … There are places we can spend money where a nonprofit on nongovernmental entity can do more with those dollars. Haven House is a good example.”
Tom Stroozas: “It’s not government’s role to take care of all these things. The role of government is to ensure the health, safety and welfare of the people who live in Homer.”
Heath Smith: “I think the nonprofits play an integral role in balancing our comm. … It comes down to a cost-benefit ratio. We have to see what dollars we get out of that.”
Q: In 2007 Homer adopted a climate-action plan. Do you believe there is a role for local government to play to address these issues?
Wise: “I agree with what Heath said.”
Aderhold: “The city has a duty to lead by example. We can adapt our buildings and help employees adapt. Climate change to me is a real thing. It has the potential to have a very large impact on our economy. We need to be cognizant of that.”
Burgess: “As a city we should always be looking to make sure our core facilities are protected. We should move things like public works out of the tsunami zone. … We need to retool our economies to adapt to these changes.”
Stroozas: “Climate change has been going on forever. … One of the best tings that came to Homer in a long time is natural gas. Natural gas gives Homer a competitive edge. Natural gas is a clean, reliable inexpensive facility.”
Smith: “I think we need to be responsible stewards of what we’ve been given. That’s a blessing to us. … Individually, we need to take care of our earth and educate ourselves to do what we think is best.”
Q: Homer has talked about economic development, but no real action has been taken. Do you have any ideas?
Wise: “We should be looking at with our marine trades also. Help commercial fishermen. A lot of them leave and take their money places because we don’t have the ability to help them.”
Aderhold: “There’s one piece I have not heard. It’s a small things. You can pretty much work anywhere now. I’m an example of that.”
Burgess: “We have the potential to be a tidal incubator here. .. In agriculture, we have the highest per capita high tunnels here. It’s a budding market … Speaking of budding: cannabis. If it’s going to be here anyway, we might as well make money off of it.”
Stroozas: “Marine trades would be an excellent place to start. .. We have a 4-hour time difference from the east coast — what a great opportunity to have a call center where people can work.”
Smith: “Homer is the destination, I tell you. If we develop the infrastructure for recreation — if we can bring people here to spend their money, they can do it. I’m telling you, it’s a multimillion dollar industry.”
Q: How do you feel about the food tax?
Wise: “I don’t think we need a food tax. It’s already expensive to buy food here.”
Aderhold: “A sales tax on groceries seems to be something that’s going away. If we don’t tax food, we’ll have to pick up the revenue someway else.”
Burgess: “I am in favor of balancing our budget. In order to balance our budget in a way the citizens of homer have become accustomed … all of them are absolutely in agreement they don’t want to pay for it (groceries). I’m in favor of the most viable option for the city of Homer, and that’s a seasonal sales tax.”
Stroozas: “We talk health, safety and welfare. Food is about health, safety and welfare. … I don’t think people should have to pay for the basic necessities of life. The way around that is prepared food tax. We can also tax junk food.”
Smith: “You’re going to tax my comfort foods? You can go both ways on this. It’s obvious we have only so many revenue streams. If you take away one you have to make it up somewhere else.”
Q: How do we make Homer a more attractive place?
Wise: “Jobs. Period. We have to have jobs here for people who want to come here and live.”
Aderhold: “We already do attract a lot of people here. There are a lot of people I know who came to Homer and never left.”
Burgess: “If you want to live here like other people live elsewhere, you have to make the cost of living affordable. How do you do that? Low cost housing. … We should also keep in mind local food and local energy.”
Stroozas: “It is jobs. Increasing the port and harbor, enabling the port to be a distribution center.”
Smith: “We need to incentivize people to build within the city limits. … We need to attract people to live in the city.”
Q: How do we balance growth and development with environment?
Wise: “I feel we do a good job of it right now. … We’re in a place in our world where we understand damages we do … We do protect our environment already.”
Aderhold: “We shouldn’t be building more roads because with the current budget and maintenance needs, we don’t have the ability. … We need to be very careful how we build our infrastructure.”
Burgess: “There are ways we can improve our economy by maintaining sustainability. If growing food here we’re improving our environment. … Simply saying no more people, no more development isn’t going to solve the problem.”
Stroozas: “Natural gas: that is an environmental tool for fostering growth.”
Smith: “There’s a balance that has to be struck on every level when we want to preserve something. … In the end, this community is awesome. As we grow, we have to make the right decisions.”
Q: What are your thoughts on the beach, access to public areas and competing uses?
Smith: “The idea that we can’t all enjoy it because of some irresponsibility of some individuals, it’s sad … Now that this work has been done, and it has been made very clear there are some dangers, we’re gong to have to delineate a portion of that for people who don’t want to participate in activities as far as vehicles go.”
Wise: “I feel like we are so regulated now. Those people will then not follow those laws, too. We will have to call the cops in, too.”
Aderhold: “The issue came before the city council because of problems. That is basically saying to the city given the level of the impact that is occurring there, this city is obligated to look at it. … We need to be a good neighbor. We need to respect those properties and right now we’re not doing that. Were also not being respectful of the multiple users.”
Burgess: “I don’t think there’s a perfect solution to the beach. … The land to east is federal land. Why not encourage the federal government with the city restrict access to the beach via a berm and leave the rest to those who gather coal?”
Stroozas: “Whatever regulation we impose there’s always going to be someone who violates it. Let’s just increase the enforcement of our current laws, and let’s levy substantially high fines on those who violate them.”
Q: Cannabis keeps coming up. What are thoughts on the reality of cannabis in Homer?
Wise: “I think we should tax it. It’s here, its legal, let’s tax it. People are talking about taxing my junk food. That’s not OK.”
Aderhold: “Cannabis is a potential revenue source. Kudos to Beau for having foresight to push for the Cannabis Advisory Commission. I’m glad were being proactive in our community.”
Burgess: “If it’s going to smoked and bought and sold, how much of that revenue are we going to keep here? … Homer has a tremendous opportunity to bring it out of the shadows and tax it.”
Stroozas: “It’s here. It’s not going to go away. We have to deal with it in the best way we can economically. I think for tourists it could be a really positive thing if we had some cannabis clubs here. Imagine a nice cannabis club on the end of the spit where they could marvel and make a lot of money.”
Smith: “I think it’s a dreamland to think those who have been in the shadow will emerge so they can be charged taxes. … The big thing for me guys, we have a younger generation who lives here, of which I have six. … Our young people have to know there are boundaries. … Cannabis, sure, lets make money off it, but lets make sure our kids, we can keep it out of their hands.”