In Tuesday’s runoff election for one Homer City Council seat, incumbent Beauregard Burgess faces a challenge by political newcomer Heath Smith. Smith came in second in the Oct. 6 election, with 408 votes or 37 percent of the votes for a single seat, closely followed by Burgess with 391 votes or 35 percent.
Absentee voting in person is 8 a.m.-5 p.m. today, Friday and Monday at Homer City Hall. Polls are open from 7 a.m.-8 p.m. Tuesday at Homer No. 1, City Hall, and Homer No. 2, Homer Senior Citizens.
Burgess frames the election as being between “a good guy who is going to be a good guy,” as Burgess described Smith, and himself, “someone who is going to be more in your face than you want, but is going to work hard to make good professional decisions.”
Less confrontational, Heath said whoever the voters elect, a council member should “take a broad view of who they serve.”
“In the end, they have to reflect on what benefits the majority of the people, and not just the smallest pockets (of constituencies),” Smith said.
Smith and Burgess failed to make the 40-percent margin needed to avoid a runoff. Under city code, the number used to calculate percentages is the total votes received by all candidates divided by the number of seats up for election, in this case, two council seats. To avoid a runoff, a candidate had to receive more than 40 percent of 1,113 votes, or 446 votes.
Council member Donna Aderhold, who attended her first council meeting Monday night after being sworn in last week, avoided a runoff by winning 44 percent or 495 votes. She succeeded former council member Francie Roberts, who did not run for re-election. Under city code, a council member remains in office until a successor qualifies, that is, takes the oath of office.
At the Oct. 20 special meeting in which Aderhold took the oath of office, the council passed without objection a motion to have her succeed to the seat held by Roberts. Burgess attempted to recuse himself from the vote, but Homer Mayor Beth Wythe ruled that because only four council members were present, under the rule of necessity Burgess should vote. Thus, Burgess keeps his seat either until he or Smith takes the oath of office.
The election pits Burgess, 30, a one-term incumbent, against Smith, 50. Burgess was appointed in April 2012 and elected that fall. A 10-year Alaska resident, Burgess owns several small businesses, including a bookkeeping firm, a contracting company and a small hydroponics food farm. Burgess lives in a multigenerational home he built with his father, retired biology professor Tony Burgess.
Smith, a lifelong Alaska resident, works as a driver for United Parcel Service. Like candidate Joni Wise, who finished fourth, he’s a second-generation Homer resident with a large family. Smith and wife Tara have six kids ranging from 3 to 18. Smith’s father, Bill Smith, is a former Homer planning commissioner and a former Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member.
The Homer News interviewed both candidates last week, asking them the same set of questions. Their answers follow. Columns by the candidates are on page 5.
How will you vote on Proposition 1, the proposal to suspend for three years the 0.75 percent of the sales tax collected for the Homer Accelerated Roads and Trails and reallocated it to the general fund? Why?
Beauregard Burgess: Yes.
“I like the idea of reappropriating HART revenues,” Burgess said. “It gives the city and the citizens time to assess their options and see what way to take things.”
Burgess said he favored a one-year suspension instead of the three-year suspension the council proposed in the proposition question.
“A year is long enough to have a discussion with citizens and citizens to have a discussion with themselves about what do we want to do. Do we want to increase revenues or do we want to substantially reduce services?”
Heath Smith: Yes.
“I think it’s our best opportunity right now. It allows us the flexibility to see how things play out with the state,” Smith said. “We get to see what our increased tax burden is on the state level and if it changes on the borough level.”
“It’s going to buy us some important time because it’s going to engage the public on a larger level,” he said. “
Do you see that as a long-term solution to revenue issues or should the city be taking another approach to balancing its budget?
Burgess: The budget debate offers citizens the opportunity to determine the level of government Homer citizens want and how much they’re willing to pay for it, Burgess said. That’s something he struggled with as the council discusses possible budgets for 2016.
“The discussion is ‘Do we want to go with a bare bones budget? Do we want to raise revenues to continue the same level of government we have now?” he asked.
Some people think there is a third choice: “Cut the massive waste that exists and make money appear out of nowhere and maintain the same level of services,” Burgess said. “That is not reality. That is a fantasy.”
Burgess said he’s in favor of increasing revenues, but he also supports the public deciding that.
“If the public doesn’t support increasing revenues, I could cut the budget. That means not cutting essential services,” he said, meaning police and fire protection, emergency services, roads and trails, water and sewer, and the harbor. “Anything beyond that given budget constraints is discretionary.”
Smith: “The golden questions are ‘What do we want for services?’ and ‘What do we want to pay for them?’” he said.
As for long-term solutions, Smith said, “The inevitability of what happens is in the hands of the voters. It comes down to what they want to pay for. I can say what I think, but it’s not up to me. That’s the whole thing I want to get across.”
Noting how students from Homer High School government classes have attended recent city council meetings, Smith said he favors more youth involvement in city government, say, think tanks where students take on ideas and propose solutions.
“I’d like to see what they think about the drug problem in town and how they would approach fixing it,” Smith said. “I think including them in part of the process helps them own it and makes them understand what makes the city tick. The idea they can make a difference is empowering.”
Regarding the proposed public safety building, what is your recommended course? How would you fund construction of that building?
Burgess: He said he’s not in favor of spending more money on the Public Safety Building. In July, the council allocated up to $355,000 for architects to come with a design to the 35-percent phase — a plan that the city could use to seek possible state or federal grants for the project.
“The money we did spend was to get us to a point where we could have a discussion of exactly what we want or need,” Burgess said. “We over and over again invite the public to hone this design, to make it exactly what the city and citizens want it to be, what fire and emergency medical services need it to be.”
Burgess said he didn’t know if there should be a phased approach, like building a police station first, but if there was, the police station should be addressed first.
“Certainly in a new building the need for police to have a place would be a priority,” he said.
As for funding, Burgess said he doesn’t see significant will from the people for bonding, unless it’s something like a local match if the feds funded 70 percent.
“Anytime the government wants to borrow tremendous amounts of money — the will has to come from the people,” he said.
Smith: “I think we do need a new police station. That should be the first thing on our list. We have a lot of other properties that are feasible for that project.”
“I will support anything that is reasonably priced and that the public is behind. Honestly, if the public voted tomorrow and said ‘We want a $30 million building’ and were willing to pay what it takes, who am I to say it shouldn’t be done?”
“The first line is to get whatever you can through grants,” Smith said. “Anything you put on the books is going to cost money. With the slim margins we’re working with, that’s going to mean (raising) more revenue.”
What does Homer do right?
Burgess: What Homer does right is “taking care of the fundamental pillars of what makes us prosperous and what makes us happy,” he said. “Clean air, clean water, a respect and appreciation for the land and our place: That connects Homer and connects Alaskans in a way that’s very special.” Homer also is the kind of place where “anybody driving by who saw me in the ditch would pull me out,” Burgess said.
Smith: “One of the greatest things about Homer, and this will always be my stance, this community is made up of an interesting and diverse group of people.”
Smith called Kachemak Bay and the natural setting “the icing on the cake,” but said, “It’s the people that makes this place great. That’s why I love living here. It’s such a great mix of people.”
What does Homer do wrong?
Burgess: “I think we’ve forgotten how to constructively disagree. There are a lot of people with big brains and academic pedigrees to boot who think that arguing for argument’s sake is constructive,” he said. “The other side of things thinks the solution is to have no government and to blanketly oppose anyone who has half a brain simply because they used a big word at some point.”
People have become more stuck in “iPhones and computers and contrived reality,” he said, narrow their social circles.
“Of course you think the people who disagree are some fringe minority who live way over there,” Burgess said. “Culture and friendship has just become another designer choice in the information age.”
Smith: “With that diversity of the community there comes a lot of opinion. People are very passionate about what they feel about how things should be done, or not done,” he said. “I’m not going to say we get it wrong. I’m going to say it’s hard to make everybody happy. It’s a balancing act.”
Smith said part of why he’s running — and what Homer has done wrong — is that people have lost trust in government.
“There are some ways to approach spending that will foster a greater trust in the community,” he said. “Once that trust has been earned, we’re going to be able to do whatever we need.”