Council appropriates $1 million for fire hall improvements

“You can sleep in the winter,” people who work in the busy summer fishing and tourism industries say when work becomes hectic. To that might be added another saying: “You can testify in the winter.”

Recognizing that it had some work to do and it would be unfair to continue debate on a proposed change to Homer Harbor moorage rates while mariners are at work, the Homer City Council at its regular meeting on Monday postponed action on Resolution 16-054, part of a package of resolutions to change the rates. It will take that issue up at its Sept. 26. Nineteen people spoke on the rate changes, a sign of the mariner community’s interest in the proposal.

But the council put in a long day of its own. In the regular meeting it passed a $1 million appropriation for Homer Volunteer Fire Department building renovations. It also held a public hearing and amended a $12 million bond proposition to fund construction of a new Homer Police Department station at the site of the Homer Educational and Recreational Complex.

The council’s day ran into four separate meetings from 4 p.m. to when it adjourned about 10:15 p.m. The council started with a work session on moorage rates, held a committee of the whole after that, broke to go into executive session to consider an ethics complaint and then held its regular meeting.

Introduced by council member Heath Smith, Ordinance 16-28 proposed to fund fire hall renovations by dipping into the city’s $2 million Permanent Fund. That fund was created out of Exxon Valdez Oil Spill settlement money and added to by windfalls like property taxes from the jack-up rig Endeavour. Taking money out of the city Permanent Fund got some blowback from former city council member and lifelong Homer resident Ray Kranich.

“That was put there for a purpose,” Kranich said. “I think if you’re going to spend a dime on it, it needs a public vote. I feel very strongly about this.”

The ordinance creating the Permanent Fund requires a 60-percent majority vote to take money out of it, but city attorney Holly Wells said that because an ordinance established that caveat, an ordinance can undo it.

Smith said he understood the importance once of having a Permanent Fund, but felt that with a possible bond and seasonal sales tax increase also coming up, he didn’t want to increase the tax burden on citizens.

“When we’re looking at bonding and bonding and then more bonding, it comes to a point where there’s a threshold in getting things done, because the tax base has a threshold,” Smith said.

Council member Bryan Zak came up with another idea: take the $1 million of the city’s general fund. City manager Katie Koester said the city has $5.8 million in a “rainy day” account. Auditors recommend the city set aside 6 months of operating expenses to maintain its cash flow in the event of an emergency. The city also has $1.82 million in general reserves and $500,000 in fleet reserves, an amount Koester called “woefully less” than it should have.

Council member Gus Van Dyke agreed with taking the $1 million out of the general fund.

“If the city has the money, I don’t care where it comes from as long as we get this done as quickly as possible.”

On Zak’s motion to take the $1 million out of the general fund, the amendment passed 5-1, with Smith opposed. On the main motion, it also passed 5-1, again with Smith voting no.

The $1 million fire hall renovations came about as a way to cut the cost of a proposed $30 million Public Safety Complex. The Public Safety Building Committee, on advice of the council, had earlier shifted its focus to building a new police station. The $1 million renovation will extend the life of the fire hall.

In its latest iteration, the Public Safety complex now would be a scaled-back police station that would use part of the HERC for things like evidence storage. The HERC lot would include a site for a future fire hall. Public Safety Building Committee member Ken Castner told the council that current plans also would relocate the popular skate park to a site just to the west.

“We’re now on Plan D,” is how Castner put the current approach.

The Police Station bond proposal has two parts: authorization to borrow up to $11.4 million for the station, and paying for the bond payment and increased operation costs with a six-month, 1-percent sales tax increase from 4.5 to 5.5 percent. An amended version introduced by Smith would add a sunset clause to the tax increase, ending it when the bond was paid off. Council member Catriona Reynolds introduced an amendment increasing the amount to $12 million. With council members David Lewis and Van Dyke opposed, the substitute version passed 4-2. On the motion to accept Reynolds’ amendment, the motion tied 3-3, with council members Donna Aderhold, Reynolds and Lewis in favor. Homer Mayor Beth Wythe broke the tie in favor of the increase.

The substitute and amended version of the bond proposition was continued to a second reading and public hearing at the June 27 meeting. The council meets then at 7 p.m. in the Cowles Council Chambers, City Hall.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at