Before serious debate about building a new police station and cutting library budgets, the council at its regular meeting on Tuesday started the night out with a treat: chocolate cake.
Postponed a day from its regular schedule because of Memorial Day, the council helped retiring City Clerk Jo Johnson celebrate her last month of city service with cake shared with council members, city staff and visiting citizens. It also by consent passed a resolution appointing former Deputy Clerk Melissa Jacobsen as City Clerk. Jacobsen started her new job as the clerk of record at Tuesday’s meeting.
“Professionals are a dime a dozen. It’s what we expect,” said longtime city resident and frequent council observer Larry Slone in public comments to the council.
He praised Johnson for her temperament, civility and impartiality. “To rise to the next level requires personal qualities that aren’t existent in all clerks … I would categorize her as an excellent clerk.”
“I want to reflect on how much I enjoyed working with her,” City Manager Katie Koester said of Johnson. “I used her as a mentor and a sounding board. … She always brought me back to the core values of transparency. … She is a moral compass.”
Most of Tuesday’s meeting dealt with two memorandums, Memorandum 17-082, recommendations of the Police Station Building Task Force, and Memorandum 17-081, introduced by council member Tom Stroozas, asking for 5 to 15 percent operational cost reductions at the Homer Public Library. It postponed the police station recommendations to its June 12 meeting and in a vote of two yes, three no, defeated Stroozas’ memo. Council member Catriona Reynolds had an excused absence.
The Police Station Task Force had been directed by the council to consider two options, a building costing up to $6 million and one up to $9 million, along with choosing a site. It recommended options 2A and 2B, both to be built on city land at the southeast corner of Heath Street and Grubstake Avenue, called the Waddell site for the name of the former owner, the lot north of the Homer Post Office. Option 2A is an 8,400-square-foot structure costing $6 million and option 2B is a 13,900-square-foot building costing $9 million.
The task force rejected the Homer Educational and Recreational Complex site at Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway near Homer Middle School. In the 2016 city election voters voted down an up to $12 million bond to build a police station on that site.
At the Committee of the Whole, task force chairperson Josh Garvey explained they rejected the HERC site because of proximity to schools, displacement of recreational use at the HERC, the first impression visitors might get coming to town and egress problems with the site.
“We’re trying to come up with recommendations that have the highest chance of passing,” Garvey said. “The HERC has some opposition. Waddell doesn’t have that.”
Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said he still favored the HERC site because of future expansion options there, especially for the day when the city needs a new fire hall.
In public comments, former Public Safety Committee Chairperson Ken Castner noted the HERC site came with some cost savings by using the old building — $200 a square foot for HERC upgrades instead of new building costs of $435 a square foot. Under the original proposal, the old HERC would be used for evidence storage and a shooting range. On the HERC site, a $6 million building would have 12,000 square feet and a $9 million building would have 17,000 square feet.
Robl said he could accept the Waddell site, though. “It’s a fine piece of property. It’s big enough for a new police station and big enough to grow,” Robl said.
The task force had been asked to deliver its recommendations by the May 30 meeting to give the council time to possibly put the question of funding a new station on the October ballot. That meant the group didn’t have time to develop floor plans. The HERC site came with a more detailed plan that included a working floor plan. Robl said he didn’t think the 8,400-square-foot option, while 3,000-square-feet bigger than the current police station, could accommodate essential services.
“I consider it to be an improvement with a limited life span,” he said of the smaller proposal. The larger building “would take us into many, many years of service to the community.”
Council member Donna Aderhold commended the task force for its work.
“You’ve dug into this to your arm pits,” she said.
Still, the proposal needs more work, she said. The council needs preliminary site plans and an idea what the expansion would look like — something the task force hadn’t been asked to do, Aderhold noted. Getting that information in time for an October ballot question might not be possible.
“I’d rather have it right than try to rush something through,” she said.
In discussion at the regular meeting, council member Heath Smith expanded on that point.
“I want to see what you get and don’t get in a $6 million building,” he said.
Council member David Lewis said he didn’t see the issue making the ballot in October and also wanted more floor and site plan information.
“If we want the concept of a $6 million building, we should have the concept of a $9 million building so we can compare the two,” he said.
Stroozas raised another question.
“How much are the citizens of Homer willing to pay for this facility? We don’t know,” he said.
In that light, the council agreed unanimously to postpone acting on the Police Station Task Force’s recommendations until the June 12 meeting.
On the library issue, Stroozas introduced a memo asking the Library Advisory Board to come up with ways to reduce the library’s operating budget from 5-15 percent. The council also passed on introduction in the consent agenda an ordinance that might give the library and police station a boost: appropriating $2.3 million from the city Permanent Fund to pay off the library loan and put some money into the new police station.
That ordinance comes up for a public hearing and final action at the June 12 meeting. While that wouldn’t affect the operating budget, paying off the library loan would free up more money from interest and principal payments for other city expenses.
Library Advisory Board member Mark Massion pointed out one problem with Strooza’s proposal: the LAB is on summer hiatus and won’t meet until Aug. 1 when the city starts its annual budget process. That’s the point when all department heads begin budget discussions with the city manager.
Stroozas’ memo got some flack for singling out the library budget.
“Such an action, if adopted, would significantly depart from your normal budgetary process and place an unfair burden upon an advisory group, smart and dedicated volunteers who are, however, not equipped to understand the library’s budget in detail,” wrote former Alaska Writer Laureate Nancy Lord in an email objecting to Strooza’s memo.
Several other citizens also questioned why the library was targeted.
Citizen activist Sarah Vance, however, supported the idea of cutting the library operating budget. She said in her own personal family budget she had to cut costs when Alaska Permanent Fund Dividends were cut.
“We’re not asking to reduce services but find ways to streamline things,” she said.
Stroozas said he asked for the reductions in the library operating budget after the Library Advisory Board at a previous meeting had presented options for increasing revenues, a task the council directed it to do. The library has a service area beyond city limits, and a perennial question has been how to get nonresidents to pay for that service beyond sales taxes.
Stroozas said he didn’t see a discussion of the other side of the question, reducing costs.
Council member Heath Smith and Stroozas both noted the library’s operational costs had gone up over the past decade. Lewis pointed out there was a reason for that: the library moved into a larger building and expanded its operations. It also is one of the few city departments that gets strong volunteer support and has a nonprofit, the Friends of the Homer Public Library, contributing to expenses, Lewis said.
“This is not ‘pick on the library.’ … This is a common sense business decision,” Stroozas said of his memo. He then looked out at the audience. “Don’t shake your heads. You don’t know what you’re shaking your heads at.”
Stroozas tried to get passed an amendment to take the burden of finding cuts off the library advisory board. That failed with three yes votes, with council member Shelly Erickson joining Stroozas and Smith, one less than four votes necessary to take council action. On the main motion, Erickson joined the no votes and it again failed.