Frustrated by what they see as an anti-business attitude on the Homer City Council, a group of about 20 small businesses earlier this month started a new advocacy group, Homer Voice for Business. The organization includes real estate agencies, laundromats, restaurants, hotels and a brewery.
Last week, the group put an ad in the Homer News urging members to testify against a proposed change in city water and sewer rates, Resolution 13-048(S)(A). At its regular meeting Monday night, the council put that resolution back on the agenda, made some amendments, and scheduled it for public hearing and action at its Aug. 12 meeting (see story, page 3).
“Warning: Homer City Council sinking local businesses,” the ad read. “Let your voice be heard: Don’t drown Homer with overwhelming commercial water rates!”
While opposition to the proposed water-sewer rates is the catalyst for the organization’s formation, discontent goes deeper than that, said Josh Garvey, chief financial officer for Land’s End Holdings and the contact for Homer Voice for Business.
“It’s definitely bigger. It’s not just for the Water Task Force issue,” he said. “Many of the people who are part of the association aren’t negatively impacted by the water-sewer issue.”
Shelly Erickson, owner of HomeRun Oil and Homer Tours, said she sees a lot of issues and council actions over the years that have built up and caused frustration among businesses. She cited the sign ordinance, the plastic shopping bag ban and the natural gas assessment process as examples.
“It just feeds into ‘we’re not being listened to,’ a point of view doesn’t appear,” she said.
At Monday’s meeting, nine people representing businesses spoke about their frustration with the city or against the rate fee changes.
“Please listen to your business owners,” Erickson said. “They’re the ones on the street hearing what your constituents think.”
Michael Warburton, owner of Ocean Shores Motel, said people have a skewed belief that business owners are wealthy. Warburton said he hasn’t paid more than $4,500 for a car and lives in a double-wide trailer.
“People don’t understand what it’s like when you run a business. There’s an assumption you have money — taxes can be increased, you can pass it on to your customers,” he said Tuesday in a follow-up interview.
Adrienne Sweeney, owner of the Driftwood Inn and AJ’s OldTown Steak House and Tavern, said Monday that past increases in water and sewer rates have made businesses nervous.
“You can imagine why a lot of us are running scared,” she said. “Most of us work around the clock and don’t collect a pay check. … Let’s just find a way to support small businesses.”
The city council and administration don’t understand small business, Warburton said.
“It’s not through meanness or evilness, but lack of understanding what we’re about and how the business model works,” he said.
“Money is going out and our income isn’t going in,” Erickson said. “For a lot of us, our income is getting smaller.”
Garvey said Homer Voice for Business will be an advocate for business that the structure of the Homer Chamber of Commerce and Visitor Center prevents it from being. He and Erickson said the chamber does a good job of providing tourist information and marketing Homer as a tourist destination. Garvey said some people feel the chamber should be divided into two sections, one to promote commerce and another to actively campaign for business, something he said he felt the chamber has been able to do effectively.
“There’s not a voice for Homer businesses in our town right now,” Garvey said. “That’s what the goal is of our association.”
Chamber Executive Director Monte Davis said he doesn’t feel attacked by the new advocacy group. The chamber sometimes has to tread lightly when taking positions since there might be disagreement among members. Davis said he’s glad to see businesses being politically active — something the chamber plans to encourage with a workshop in September.
“I’m thrilled with the idea,” Davis said of Homer Voice for Business. “I’m glad to see they’re willing to step into the political arena and be proactive and not reactive.”
Erickson said one solution to getting the city government to listen to businesses might be through mediation.
“I really think that there needs to be someone who, at least for the time being, is not paid by the city,” she said. “I think they need to have a group of people so it’s not one business being pitted against City Hall, so there’s one kind of mediator who can look at both sides — you’re right here, you’re wrong here, what can we do to avoid a lawsuit?”
At Monday night’s council meeting, Council member Beau Burgess responded to criticism that the council is anti-business. Burgess, who owns a bookkeeping company as well as a small construction company, noted that the council had passed a comprehensive natural gas assessment district that spread the cost on a per-lot basis.
“It’s hard for me as a council member who socialized natural gas to the city of Homer to sit here and listen that the council is anti-business,” he said.
City Manager Walt Wrede also noted the natural gas line as being a boon to business.
“There’s been one recurring theme we have to cut costs,” Wrede said. “We just cut costs with the energy savings we’ve done.”
Mayor Beth Wythe elaborated on Wrede’s point.
“In eight years we have reduced the budget by more than $3 million,” she said. “We reduced the property tax by a half-mill. We eliminated the winter tax on food. It seems that we have a short memory. It’s always ‘What have you done for me lately?’”
All he’s really asking for is a little understanding by the mayor and council of the challenges businesses face, Warburton said.
“It would be nice if they walked a mile in my shoes. I’d gladly serve them coffee and let them walk through my double-wide trailer and look at my books,” he said. “They should try to get into our heads a little bit. I don’t think they do that.”
Garvey said Homer Voice for Business has no board members and everyone has an equal vote. The group next meets 7 p.m. Aug. 2 at a place to be announced. For more information, call Garvey at 299-4577.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.