With the vote on Proposition 1 looming next Tuesday, the Homer City Council had many of the issues in that question on its agenda at Monday’s regular council meeting. The Nov. 23 meeting was the last council meeting before the election and the council’s Dec. 7 meeting, when the council will pass its 2017 budget. The council considered the future of the Homer Accelerated Roads and Trails fund, or HART, but also pondered potential cuts and a few minor revenue sources to the budget.
At the Dec. 1 special election, Prop 1 asks voters if they want to suspend for three years the .75 percent of city sales taxes that go into the HART fund, now worth about $7 million. If Prop 1 passes, about $1 million raised annually for HART would be diverted into the general fund. That would be about enough to keep city services at current levels, with some budget cuts. That’s Budget A of two budgets City Manager Katie Koester introduced Oct. 12.
If the vote fails, the council would approve Budget B, a more Draconian budget. The council introduced an ordinance that has Budget B, the bare-bones budget, as a contingency if Prop 1 fails.
That the council asked voters to consider suspending contributions to HART raises questions about the future of HART and if the fund’s intent or policy should be changed. In a memo to the council, Koester asked the council for guidance on several topics:
• Should the city ask voters if it wants HART to cover road and trails maintenance?
• Should the council come up with new guidelines for HART to allow things like creating special assessment districts for sidewalks?
• Should the council scrap the existing policy manual and write new legislation for HART?
The council discussed those questions during a work session. Koester’s questions lead council member Donna Aderhold to step back even further. With all the money in HART, why aren’t property owners pushing for special assessment districts to fund projects at a subsidized rate? That rate is $30 a foot for gravel roads and $17 a foot for paving roads.
“Why are people not using the fund?” she asked. “Have we built the roads we need to build? Are there additional roads that don’t need to be rebuilt?”
Public Works Director Carey Meyer pointed out the original intent of HART when it was first created, to upgrade dusty gravel roads. The fund guidelines have since
been changed to allow for new roads and trails and even traffic-calming measures like the Old Town speed humps.
There’s another issue, council member David Lewis mentioned: When proposals go to property owners for HART projects, they’re often voted down. To win approval, the majority must agree to tax themselves for improvements, with large property owners getting more votes than smaller property owners. That sometimes means absentee landowners can spike a project.
“I don’t know if that needs to be changed where we go where one lot owner has an individual vote,” Lewis said.
Other property owners might not want an improvement, said City Planner Rick Abboud.
“Some might not want the road improved because it would lead to increased traffic,” he said. “They’d rather have the holes.”
The council didn’t provide Koester specific guidance, but did agree to keep looking at how to improve HART.
At the regular meeting, the council held a second public hearing on the budget as well as a hearing on a resolution to change some city fees and fines. That resolution chipped away at the revenue issue, and while not raising substantial amounts, did adjust some fees and fines. Among the changes were raising these fees:
• Tent camping fee from $8 to $10 a day;
• Cemetery plots from $200 to $1,000;
• Vehicle impound fees from $7.50 to $40 a day;
• Ambulance fees for basic life support from $440 to $500 and advanced life support from $550 to $800; and
• Ambulance mileage from $7.50 a mile to $12 a mile.
In her manager’s report, Koester said cemetery plots at the Hickerson Memorial Cemetery were in short supply, with only about 25 plots. City Clerk Jo Johnson said the city sells from 10 to 15 plots a year, so burial plots could sell out within two years. All remaining plots are single plots. Koester said the city has land to expand the Diamond Ridge Road cemetery to 700 more plots, but it would cost $230,000 to build it. The proposed budget does not include expansion of the cemetery, but the fee increase would help fund new plots.
While the public didn’t comment on the budget, at the Committee of the Whole and the regular meeting, some council members floated ideas on how to slash the budget, particularly if Prop 1 failed and Budget B was the option.
“At this point in time there are no sacred cows on the table,” Mayor Beth Wythe said.
Wythe raised the issue of council and mayor pay. Last year the council raised its pay from $50 a month to $75 a meeting day, with members not paid if they’re absent and paid $50 if they attend telephonically.
“I feel like it’s fair to bring it up before we go on the radio,” she said at the committee of the whole meeting, not broadcast as is the regular meeting on KBBI public radio. “It feels a bit onerous.”
Wythe said both she and council member Gus VanDyke do not take their pay. Council member Catriona Reynolds defended the pay, saying the argument when it was passed was to make running for the council more democratic. Younger candidates or people with families could use the stipend to pay for baby sitters or for unpaid leave time taken off from work to attend meetings.
New member Aderhold said she didn’t think anyone ran for council thinking they were going to get paid.
“It actually feels a little bit weird to me to get paid,” she said.
At the committee of the whole meeting, VanDyke suggested an even more controversial cut to a budget item: about $950,000 for the Homer Public Library. That includes about $100,000 annually to pay off the library bond.
“I know I’m going to make a lot of enemies in the next 1.5 minutes,” VanDyke said. “Of all of the things that are in this budget, the library sucks out $950,000 a year. It may be a good thing, a necessary thing, but it’s not a core thing. That’s something we should look at, shutting it down completely or drastically reducing it.”
That idea brought a sharp retort from Lewis and Aderhold.
“If people are going to move here, they will be looking at what makes it a good place to raise a family,” Lewis said. “It’s not going to be fire protection and roads. It’s going to be things like the library.”
“Yes, the library is well worth every penny we spend,” Aderhold said. “We voted to tax ourselves to pay for that library. … I would suggest on some afternoon you go and sit outside or inside the library and see how many people use that library. Our library is an amazing asset.”
Lewis proposed a possible cut of his own: a grant to the Homer Chamber of Commerce for helping to promote Homer as a tourist destination. Lewis said while other nonprofits like the Pratt Museum have had city grants reduced, the chamber hasn’t. He also said he wanted to see some figures on how the chamber spends the city’s money. Koester said the chamber had provided that information, but she did not include it in the Nov. 23 packet and apologized for the omission.
VanDyke walked back his idea a bit.
“I’m neither for the library or against the library. Somebody had to bring that up. There’s lots of money on the table,” he said.
Wythe said VanDyke shouldn’t feel bad. Every line item in the budget is out there for debate.
“If we don’t have that conversation, we don’t get that knowledge,” she said.
Wythe had asked council members to make budget changes at its Monday meeting, but no one made any amendments. Any amendment adding money to a line item would have to show where it came from, either with new revenue or cuts to another item. Wythe asked for a clean budget to be on the table on the Dec. 7 meeting.
In other business, the council:
• Passed on the consent agenda introduction of an ordinance to spend $2,540.30 on touchscreen voting machines that would make voting more accessible.
• Appointed Reynolds to the Cannabis Advisory Commission, replacing former council member Beau Burgess;
• Reappointed Matt Steffy and Robert Archibald to the Parks and Recreation Advisory Commission;
• Introduced on first reading an ordinance making adopting by reference the state’s traffic laws into city code;
• Introduced on first reading an ordinance to place the Permanent Fund in a self-managed brokerage and disband the Permanent Fund Committee;
• Made amendments and changes to the budget;
• Passed a resolution authorizing Koester to apply for and accept an $839,000 Alaska Drinking Water fund loan for water distribution and storage improvement projects;
• Passed a resolution approving a memorandum of understanding with the Homer Foundation to allow the foundation to raise money for a boathouse pavilion on the Homer Spit; and
• Passed on second reading and without objection amendments to the planning code regarding impervious coverage in the Bridge Creek Watershed.
Michael Armstrong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.