Show me the money.
While Mayor Beth Wythe and some council members didn’t say it in exactly those words, that was the sentiment at Monday night’s Homer City Council meeting and council work sessions earlier that night and the previous Monday.
Several items prompted Wythe and others to express an austerity philosophy driven by discussions with Alaska legislators on a recent trip to Juneau and what Wythe sees as overuse of city staff resources. Among them:
• The Homer Education and Recreational Complex, or HERC, and what to do with the building used by the Homer Boys and Girls Club; and
• The Kachemak Drive nonmotorized path and a Parks and Recreation Commission subcommittee’s desire to get a cost-estimate for building a bicycle and pedestrian path from the Homer Spit Road uphill on Kachemak Drive to the south side of the airport.
The council postponed action on a resolution introduced by Wythe to postpone all survey, design and engineering work on the path .
On the HERC, the council did kick the tires on an idea that might solve part of the problem of funding recreational programs in Homer: work with the Kenai Peninsula Borough to create a lower Kenai Peninsula recreational service area. It would be similar in geography to the South Peninsula Hospital Service Area, which generally includes the lower peninsula south of Clam Gulch.
In a work session on Monday, the council discussed options for the HERC. Homer City Manager Walt Wrede gave the council a memo to “get the council on a path that leads to a decision.” He also suggested gauging community support for options through an advisory vote in the next city election.
Formerly a Kenai Peninsula Borough school building, the city acquired the building and lot at the corner of Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway from the borough on the condition that it be used for educational and recreational purposes. Mike Illg, director of Community Recreation, has proposed the HERC house not just the Boys & Girls Club, but all-ages recreational activities. Nonprofits also have shown an interest in using the building.
The problem? According to an analysis done last December by Klauder and Company, an Anchorage architectural firm, it would cost $10 million to upgrade the HERC to fire and handicapped accessible standards and make it more energy efficient, about the same cost as building a new structure.
“There is pressure to upgrade the building and keep it open, but very limited money to do so,” Wrede wrote in his memo.
Even that’s not enough, Wythe said.
“If someone gave us $5 million today for that building, we still do not have enough money to maintain the building,” she said.
That was a theme Wythe repeated several times on Monday: the city has cut its budget $3 million over the past three years. Voters have not supported raising sales taxes by eliminating a seasonal exemption for nonprepared foods. If citizens don’t want to raise taxes, the city has to live within its means.
Council member Barbara Howard also spoke to that issue at the work session.
“It’s sad we have to constantly look at the numbers,” she said. “We don’t have any more funds. We can’t go into debt by taking more than we take in. If folks have any ideas for solving the funding problem, nobody’s told me yet.”
One idea for funding is creating a borough recreational service area, something the city of Seldovia already has done. The service area would include not just the city of Homer, but the surrounding areas on East End Road, Diamond Ridge, Skyline Drive and even Anchor Point. Kelly Cooper, a Boys & Girls Club supporter who has been working on the HERC issue, said a service area could be proposed for a vote, but would need 180 days lead time to get on the ballot.
The service area could support not just the HERC, but programs like the library, Homer Hockey and the Pratt Museum. Council member David Lewis asked Cooper what it would cost property taxpayers for a service area, and she said it would depend on how many recreational groups the service area funded.
Wythe expressed reluctance to get the city involved in forming a borough service area.
“Staff time is burned out,” she said. “We can’t appoint our employees.”
Wrede said a committee to form a service area would be a borough matter. He said he would be happy to volunteer, and that the council doesn’t need to take any action, although a resolution in support would be helpful. Council members Bryan Zak, Howard, Lewis, Beau Burgess and James Dolma all voiced support for exploring the recreational service area idea.
Ryan Tunseth, president of the Kenai Peninsula Boys & Girls Club board, said it is willing to help in any way it can. He noted that borough Mayor Mike Navarre, House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Sen. Peter Micciche, R- Soldotna, all are on the board.
“We like being in the HERC building,” Tunseth said. “It can become the umbrella for nonprofits.”
Michael Armstrong can be reached at email@example.com.