Fairness: matter of opinion

The fairness of gas line assessments is a personal perspective. Recently Doug Van Patten wrote a reasonable opinion piece about his heartburn with the issue and he is not alone. Neither is Ken Castner who prevailed in court regarding condo assessment. 

When it comes to paying for city services most everyone has a personal opinion about the fairness of it. As chairman of the natural gas commission when the city organized it 5 years ago I have a slightly different take on the fairness of personal opinion.

It is important to remember that Enstar was not willing to pay for a natural gas mainline extension from Anchor Point to Homer. They made it clear that the small customer base and lack of population density here would not support that kind of capital expense on their part. To do that we needed money from the state — about 10 million — free. From the beginning it was clear the Legislature would demand to see a plan for build-out of the system in Homer and a plan for assessments that would pay for it — if we were going to have a chance to get that money for the mainline extension. 

 As one person on that natural gas commission, I pushed very hard for a graduated plan of build-out starting with the densest subdivisions and moving outward later as property owners in adjacent areas worked things out. That plan might have given the city council more time to consider the complexities of people and properties situated very differently. But that was just one less-than-perfect opinion amongst many when the primary objective of the commission’s work was not fairness of assessments but getting $10 million from the Legislature. When we realized that assessment methods and determining the most practical build-out were ultimately political decisions for the city council, there was little incentive for the commission to have continual meetings for a year on contentious issues for which we had no say-so. 

The city took over the planning internally and the rest is history. One thing is clear. It would be hard to find someone who thinks bringing natural gas to Homer was a bad idea. It is arguably the best municipal project this city has done. We were able to do this because the city has the authority and financial clout to move forward on beneficial community projects without being unduly sidetracked by the fact that fair allocation of cost is not a perfect process. We have room for fine-tuning natural gas assessments, but like our water rate wars, the arguments should be conducted in an atmosphere of appreciation for what the city has accomplished on behalf of the community. 

When one considers what the community spends money on it isn’t hard to find things that might be considered unfair. Many people without children can’t figure out why so much of our tax money goes to schools. Some folks hate paying for a library they’ve never been in. People who use very little water think Land’s End should subsidize the water system — of course they feel they already do. Some people are irate their tax money funds the Homer Chamber of Commerce or community schools. Others wonder why tourists don’t shoulder more of the burden for the cost of city services only needed for the three months of summer tourism. How about that hospital expansion on your property tax?

 So the questions are these: Was the city unreasonably careless on the plan of individual assessments given the pressing need for a plan to submit to the Legislature? Has the city done anything so egregious that it can’t be solved? No and no. 

But given our water rate fights why would we expect people to be completely happy about their natural gas costs?

Mike Heimbuch is a political observer and former Homer City Council member.