Council passes $21.7 million budget

Homer has a budget for fiscal year 2018, now that it’s been passed by the City Council after several adjustments.

Council members voted unanimously at their Monday, Dec. 11 meeting to adopt a roughly $21.7 million budget, with $12 million in the city’s general fund and $846,788 in its capital projects fund. The ordinance to pass the budget was first introduced at the council’s Oct. 30 meeting. Residents had another chance during the Nov. 27 and Dec. 11 meetings to weigh in before it passed Monday.

Before it was passed, the budget went though two more adjustments. The first was a reduction in funding to the Public Works department’s request for money for a vacuum truck from $450,000 to $400,000, sponsored by council member Shelly Erickson. The adjustment also called for $50,000 to be approved toward a new brush cutter for the department. Erickson said she had done some research into the cost of a vacuum truck, used to suck sludge, liquid and other matter off of streets, and thought the Public Works Department would be able to find something suitable for less than they requested.

Another adjustment made to the budget was the elimination of $34,000 that would have funded the purchase of an aerial drone for the Homer Police Department, as well as associated training to go along with it. The adjustment was sponsored by council member Heath Smith, who said he couldn’t see the justification for the cost of a drone at this point.

An incident this July in which first responders discovered a truck that had fallen over Baycrest Hill on the Sterling Highway was brought up as an example of why the police department might make use of a drone. Firefighters and medics rapelled down the side of the cliff to search for possible passengers. Smith pointed out that a member of Kachemak Emergency Services who personally owned a drone was able to bring it to the site to help in the search. Erickson questioned whether there are any licensed independent contractors in the Homer area the city could work with in the event it needs a drone for an emergency situation, to which City Manager Katie Koester answered that there aren’t.

“I brought this forward because, while I understand that there’s some added value to having the use of a drone, I can’t see it as justifying the cost … at this point,” Smith said. “I mean that’s basically the cost almost of a new police vehicle that I think would get far more use.”

Council member Caroline Venuti also pointed out that some cities which do use drones get into trouble when it comes to privacy issues.

Another budget amendment that was sponsored by Smith but failed 4-3 (with a tie-breaking vote from Mayor Bryan Zak) was a proposal to cut funding for the design of a new roof for City Hall from $25,000 to $15,000.

Other adjustments made to the budget at the council’s previous meeting were:

• A 0.5 percent cost of living increase for city employees, sponsored by Zak, cut in half from a 1-percent raise originally proposed by the Employee Committee.

• A $9,394 increase in salary and benefits for the Finance Department to “rearrange duties and hire (a) qualified accountant,” which was sponsored by City Manager Katie Koester.

• An adjustment sponsored by Smith to move $1 million from the city’s Health Insurance Fund and split it up among four other city accounts: the fund for a future police station will get $669,212, the Port and Harbor Reserves will get $171,429, the Water Reserves will get $88,424 and the Sewer Reserves will get $70,936. The Health Insurance Fund has about $1.6 million in it currently, Smith said, the majority of which came from when the city used to be self-insured.

• A $33,415 transfer from the Water Reserves fund to pay for stewardship costs for preserving about 300 acres of land in the Bridge Creek Watershed, sponsored by council member Shelly Erickson.

• A $10,000 increase in funds to the Homer Public Library book budget, sponsored by council member Donna Aderhold.

• A $750 allocation from the Park Reserves fund to pay for three signs to be posted at “points of entry into Kachemak Bay to warn recreational users of the hazards of cold water and limits of emergency response capabilities,” sponsored by Erickson.

Only one person testified to the council about the budget when its public hearing came up. David Bernard, a city employee and the representative for the Homer Public Library on the Employee Committee, said the members of the committee were disappointed that the council voted to reduce their cost of living adjustment to 0.5 percent.

Bernard said that while the 0.5 percent cost of living adjustment keeps employees in line with current inflation, he said, Homer still appears to be behind the average for what several other Alaska municipalities have given their employees over the last half dozen years.

“For us as current employees, it’s important for us to both keep pace with inflation but it also feels like, to us, how much we’re valued as employees,” he said. “It’s also important for the recruitment of future employees, especially at high level positions, that we keep pace with other municipalities, other org and businesses both within the state and Outside.”

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