Public safety building options, how to pay for them discussed

Even though the Homer City Council in December passed a balanced budget, for the virtuous as well as the wicked there can be no rest. When voters passed a ballot measure suspending for three years the .75-percent of sales taxes to the Homer Accelerated Roads and Trails fund, the council said it would keep exploring revenue solutions.

At a work session on Tuesday, the council did just that. The night’s talk focused more on another big revenue drain, a new public safety building that could cost $15 million, $23 million or $29 million.

“The question on the table is how to proceed with the Public Safety Building project,” City Manager Katie Koester said in her comments to the council.

The Public Safety Building Committee has been exploring alternatives, including sites, for the past two years. Tuesday night, committee chair Ken Castner made it clear it was time for the council to act.

“Our job as the building committee is to present you with some facts as to what the cost would be. It’s up to you to look at the alterantives that were presented,” he said.

Those alternatives are:

• A police-only 24,000-square-foot building that would cost $15 million to build, $144,000 a year to maintain and a $1 million annual bond payment;

• A reduced public safety campus with a 24,000-square-foot police building and a 16,000-square-foot fire building that would cost $23 million

to build, cost $200,000 annually to maintain and a $1.5 million annual bond payment; and

• A combined public safety campus with a 32,000-square-foot police building and a 20,000-square-foot fire building that would cost $29 million to build, $300,000 a year to maintain and about a $2 million annual bond payment.

All bond payment estimates are for 20-year bonds. The site would be the Homer Educational and Recreational Complex next to Homer Middle School at the corner of West Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway. The cheapest option would include $1 million in upgrades to the fire hall.

Castner said the buildings should be on high ground away from tsunami danger and able to withstand a category 9 earthquake. The council shouldn’t expect funding from the state or other sources. To keep costs down, the committee selected city-owned land. The Public Safety Committee thought that the HERC site was the best city-owned land.

“Other than the gym, there’s no reason not to put that there. It’s a really nice high spot that is at the confluence of two main roads,” Castner said.

Fiscal conservatives on the council like Heath Smith and Gus VanDyke questioned even the $15 million price tag of Option 3, the cheapest plan. Smith said that with looming state budget shortfalls and the possibility the state would pass on some costs to cities, fiscal uncertainity might make even Option 3 challenging.

“I’m not convinced that taking that type of figure to bond is something that’s going to pass,” Smith said.

VanDyke said he wondered if 24,000-square-feet was too big, even if planning for the future. 

Homer Police Chief Mark Robl said part of the larger size has to do with new regulations for storing evidence. For sexual assault or sexual abuse of minors cases, evidence must be retained for the life of the individual — and that can mean things like mattresses. 

VanDyke agreed with Smith that voters might not pass a $15 million bond.

“We have to be as fiscally minded as we possibly can,” he said. “I bet you dollars for doughnuts it would fall like a fireball.”

If Option 3 could be built for $10 million, it might pass, VanDyke said.

Castner said a lower price might happen.

“I think that you guys, the council needs to say, this is what you can do. … I think you can pass a $10 million bond,” he said. “It’s not until you roll up your sleeves and say this is the best we’re going to do.”

Castner said while $1 million in upgrades would keep the fire hall going, the police station is beyond repair.

“The place is a rat hole. It should be replaced,” he said. “It’s our public safety bulding. It’s been cobbled together its not a safe place to work.”

Discussion on possible revenues wasn’t as focused. The real question was “Where does the city want to be in 15 years?” Mayor Beth Wythe asked.

“We can talk about next year’s budget until the cows come home, and it won’t get us to long term,” she said.

Wythe suggested the city look at services being provided and consider which ones could be suspended for a few years and brought back later without difficulty.

Maybe the council could raise sales taxes, VanDyke suggested — recognizing that would mean that under city code if sales taxes go too high property taxes would drop. That might address the issue of the senior exemption, Kathy Hill suggested in public comments at the end. Seniors can get up to a $300,000 deduction in assessments, but don’t get a deduction in sales taxes.

Council member Catriona Reynolds suggested an excise tax on alcohol, tobacco and cannabis. 

Council member David Lewis, a smoker, said that of an excise tax, “as someone who would be hit pretty hard by it, and I don’t have a problem with that, you’re still hitting a select group of individuals.”

That was the same issue raised with a bed tax, he said.

“We need to look at even all these small pots of money that will start adding up,” he said.

Regarding the public safety discussion, as the council wrapped up that part of the work session, Smith made sure he understood what the Public Safety Building Committee wanted from the council.

“You want direction?” he asked Castner.

“It’s time for the council to take a stand on this,” Castner said.

“Oh we will. Rest easy on that part,” Smith replied.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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