Council introduces budget, debates Prop 1 campaign

In what arguably will be its most important act this year, the Homer City Council without fanfare introduced on first reading Ordinance 15-41, the legislation that will fund city government for 2016. That starts the process in an annual fall event leading up to an early December action that the council must make to keep the city running.

Public hearings on the budget will be held at council meetings on Nov. 23 and Dec. 7, with a second reading and final vote then. With the city facing a $1 million shortfall in revenues it needs to sustain a budget similar to 2015, debate on Monday focused more on another ordinance: Ordinance 15-39(s), a $5,000 appropriation to fund a public information campaign to hopefully convince voters to approve Proposition 1 in a special election Dec. 1.

If passed, Proposition 1 would suspend for three years the 0.75 percent in sales taxes allocated to the Homer Accelerated Roads and Trails, or HART, program, and instead allocate it to the general fund. About $7 million in the HART would remain and could not be tapped. That suspension would help fund budget A, what City Manager Katie Koester calls the “assumes revenue budget.”

At the Committee of the Whole meeting, Koester presented a proposed informational campaign, including draft wording for a postcard mailing. The mailing says that if Prop 1 passes and HART sales taxes are reallocated, “these funds will be redirected to pay for vital services such as: plowing, emergency services, community recreation, parks and the library, as well as other valued services.”

In a public hearing on the ordinance to fund $5,000 for the information campaign, Ken Castner cautioned the city to be careful in its information on Prop 1.

“The ordinance would lead a taxpayer to think by voting for this I’m taking care of the Chamber of Commerce, I’m taking care of the HERC (Homer Educational and Recreational Complex), when in my mind this is not a slam-dunk deal,” he said.

In her budget message at the Oct. 12 meeting when she presented the budget to the council, Koester noted that the $11.6 million general fund in Budget A would make these $725,000 cuts:

• A Homer Police dispatcher and a jail officer;

• Eliminating code enforcement for the Planning Department;

• $29,000 in books and supplies for the library;

• Half a position in the city manager’s office;

• One position in the Finance Department;

• One project manager position and two half-time positions in Public Works;

• $10,000 in support to the Homer Senior Center; and

• $14,000 in support to the Homer Hockey Association.

Koester also presented Budget B, what she calls the “bare bones budget,” that would take effect if Prop 1 didn’t not pass. That budget would make even more severe cuts, like eliminating a police officer position, cutting two seasonal fire department positions, 1.2 library positions, a .4-time clerk position, $50,000 in cuts to community recreation, $35,700 in cuts to the Homer Chamber of Commerce and$ 46,600 to the Pratt Museum.

Mayor Beth Wythe noted that the HART suspension is a short-term fix.

“It will bring back some of these B budget cuts,” she said. “The HART is a Band-Aid. A real long-term revenue increase of some sort is the resolution to the deficit.”

Council member Beauregard Burgess noted Castner’s point.

“I see we definitely want to clarify what we’re doing right now, what Budget A is and what Budget B is and the dots that connect them,” he said.

The council amended the ordinance to take out references to another revenue proposal, a seasonal sales tax increase, and passed the $5,000 appropriation for a public information campaign.

Burgess also criticized the idea that it’s wrong the HART fund has accumulated such a high balance. That’s a failure of the council to let the public know it’s there as a resource for matching funds to do community roads and trails projects.

“The growth of roads and trails and maintenance of these things are super-duper important of what we do,” Burgess said. “The real thing to focus on is look at better ways to use these funds.”

To that end, Koester at the Committee of the Whole presented budget amendments to be introduced later that would add three HART projects:

• $12,500 for Calhoun Trail improvements;

• $35,000 for restriping lanes, adding speed bumps and making other safety improvements to Soundview Avenue by West Homer Elementary School; and

• $315,000 in sidewalk improvements for Soundview Avenue.

Koester added a caveat on the sidewalk improvements. Rather than fund sidewalk improvements 100 percent from HART funds, she said she would recommend the council develop a process on how sidewalks can be built in any Homer neighborhood and how the costs might be shared by nearby property owners.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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