Homer City Hall. (Homer News file photo)

City council approves additional emergency relief programs

Housing, commercial fishermen will receive financial aid

Local commercial fishermen and those facing rent or mortgage challenges during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic are getting a leg up from the city — the Homer City Council approved measures at its Monday meeting that create financial relief programs for both categories.

The council passed an ordinance and a resolution that create the Fishermen Economic Recovery Grant Program, and allocated $1.3 million in CARES Act funding to be given out in grants. It also passed an ordinance on Monday that creates the Mortgage and Rent Relief Grant Program, allocates $763,200 to it, and authorizes the city manager to enter an agreement with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation to administer that program.

Several other cities including Soldotna, Kenai, Wasilla and Kachemak City have already created programs partnering with the corporation to provide rent and mortgage relief.

The Mortgage and Rent Relief Grant Program is only available for city residents. For those who live outside the city, the Kenai Peninsula Borough also has a rent and mortgage relief program for borough residents outside city limits.

Eligible city residents can apply for grants of up to $1,200 per month for six months, spanning July through December 2020. The payments will go directly to the landlord or lender for mortgage or rent relief.

Council members Heath Smith and Joey Evensen, who have advocated for getting more funding directly to city residents throughout the process of allocating CARES Act money, praised the work that went into this program and ordinance. Smith thanked Evensen and council member Donna Aderhold for their contributions to the ordinance.

“I think this has the ability to really have a real positive impact on some families that have really suffered, so I’m grateful that we have brought this forward and I look forward to people being able to take advantage of it,” Smith said.

To be eligible for the Fishermen Economic Recovery Grant Program, applicants must own a commercial fishing vessel that is moored in Homer, and they must have been active in 2020. One grant per commercial fishing vessel owner is available.

According to the fishermen program criteria, vessel owners can receive a grant of up to $2,000, a commercial fishing permit holder is eligible for a grant of up to $1,000, and a vessel owner can receive up to $1,000 per crew member for up to five crew members. If a vessel owner met all criteria for each category, they could receive up to $8,000.

Read the full program description and eligibility requirements here: www.cityofhomer-ak.gov/sites/default/files/fileattachments/memo/68761/revised_ferg_policy_final_10_21_20.pdf

Jim Herbert, a Fritz Creek area resident who owns property inside the city, testified in favor of the ordinance that helped establish the fishermen relief program.

“I’m a retired fishermen and would apply to or benefit from this program, but I think you folks all realize that Homer is the base of operations for many commercial fishing businesses and their crews,” he said.

Herbert noted the significant contributions to the local economy that are made by commercial fishermen.

Aaron Fleenor, vice president of Homer Marine Trades Association, also spoke in support of the program, “as it would benefit our local fishermen and their crews, and as well as stimulate local economy.”

Council member Rachel Lord noted during the meeting that this program has gotten more feedback and comments from the community than any of the previous financial relief programs the city has established so far.

“I really appreciate and applaud the fishing community for supporting this and supporting one another in economic recovery,” she said.

Evensen thanked the local commercial fishermen who weighed in on the program while it was being formed, as well as Mayor Ken Castner for the work he put in as well.

“A lot of folks spent a lot of time coming up with ideas and going through numbers to contribute to this,” Evensen said.

In other city council action, its members approved sending a letter to Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration relaying concerns about the growing spread of COVID-19 across the state and the peninsula. Approved through the consent agenda, the letter lays out concerns and needs relayed by the local community, including the need for faster testing turnaround times, sufficient contact tracing, and the wish for regionalized information on how the virus is spreading in this particular area.

“As we look towards a winter of high case counts, the City of Homer stands ready to work in partnership with your administration, Federal agencies, and community leaders to get our schools open, to support our working families, our children, and our businesses,” a draft of the letter states. “Together we can get through this difficult time, maximizing every opportunity we have to respond in a timely way to mitigate social and economic harm.”

The council also considered sending a letter to the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District. The decision of whether to do that was pulled off the consent agenda and discussed during the regular meeting.

Ultimately, the council decided not to send that letter to KPBSD Superintendent John O’Brien. The council also discussed the letter during its committee of the whole meeting. During discussion, Aderhold said she felt the letter was too vague. The letter, penned by Castner, applauded the district for the guidelines it came up with to handle school operations as cases rise.

“The guidelines provide a solid base of local preventions to minimize community spread,” the letter read. “… The same cannot be said of the measures taken for interscholastic activities. While the District might impose requirements for the students involved, attendant participants become regional travelers that increase the chances of becoming a new vector of viral spread.”

The letter urged the district to place a return to the classroom as a priority.

Castner said he wrote the letter as a reaction to concerns he’s gotten from members of the community since local schools went to 100% remote learning.

“I think what has happened is that that’s not the highest priority, keeping the kids in school,” Castner said. “If keeping the kids in school was the highest priority then that would have one set of circumstances that would support that.”

He made the argument that the district made interscholastic sports an equal priority to keeping students in school buildings. Castner asserted that the recent uptick in community spread of COVID-19 was caused by school sporting events in which teams from other schools and people from other towns came to Homer.

Public Health Nurse Lorne Carroll, however, said that’s not the case during his regular update to the council as part of the city’s Unified Command. Asked whether school sports and the travel associated with them are considered to be a primary vector for the Homer community, he said they are not.

“I can say as far as I know that school sports hasn’t been held up as something that we should all pay particular attention to,” Carroll said.

The council members ultimately voted the letter down unanimously.

Reach Megan Pacer at mpacer@homernews.com.

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