Questions & Answers – Candidates for Homer Mayor and Homer City Council

1. Some people have criticized the city of Homer as being anti-business. Do you think this is true? Why? What, if anything, should the city of Homer do to help business and promote economic development?

Candidates for Homer Mayor:

Mayoral challenger Lindianne Sarno: I am researching why businesses have criticized the city of Homer as anti-business. I am grateful to those business people who related their experiences to me; I hope to hear from more of you. The city has a history of obstructing mechanic shops. The city has killed family businesses such as motels through zoning. The planning department sometimes applies zoning laws rigidly. The city should listen more, have an ombudsman, help local businesses secure the permits and investments needed to move ahead with sound business plans. The city should focus more on encouraging local business (who spend dollars here), and less on luring Outside corporations (who siphon Homer dollars to Outside coffers). Mixed residential/commercial zoning will create a more thriving downtown. More affordable housing will encourage young families to start small businesses. Get creative! Yurts, cob construction, and small dwellings can create kid-safe, charming neighborhoods.

Incumbent Mayor Beth Wythe: For the past two years I have been championing an effort to change this perception that has developed due to current regulations that have a limiting impact on the way businesses may operate in Homer, such as sign restrictions. Having more members of the business community become involved on the commissions and committees that influence the development of these regulations may provide a better insight regarding the potential impact on business development before regulations are approved by the council. Encouraging the Economic Development Commission to become proactive in the development of recommendations for promoting a business friendly community may also be helpful. Another perspective is that if a business has a positive relationship with the city administration you seldom hear about it, but if there is a negative interaction it is shared like wildfire. Encouraging business owners to share the good along with the bad may help change the perception as well.

Homer City Council Candidates:

Corbin Arno: I believe the city of Homer could be more business friendly. Instead of dictating our sign size and square footage of advertising space businesses are allowed to have on their property, and dictating how you can use and how much of our property we can use, how about getting out of the way instead of in the way and let people prosper instead of regulating them out of business? I hear business owners say “I will never open another business in Homer again.” Maybe there might be something wrong if people are saying that.

Justin Arnold: I don’t believe that the city or any level of government should dictate what businesses to support and grow. When that becomes the government’s job it leads to helping your buddies not the people. The anti-business ordinances and laws that have been enacted by the city council that do nothing but create more red tape and costs are why the city of Homer is widely viewed as anti-business. I believe the city of Homer should work with the people of Homer to eliminate this unnecessary red tape. That will promote economic development.

Incumbent David Lewis: No, I don’t see the city as anti-business. The gas line is making it possible to reduce costs, lowering the cost of doing business. We hope these savings will be passed on to the consumer. The Port and Harbor is a growing economic engine for the city. With the development of a Vessel Haul Out here in Homer, we will be able to keep our fleet from going elsewhere for repairs and hopefully bring in new business.

Catriona Lowe: The city of Homer and the City Council are not anti-business. I understand certain aspects of regulations and city government feel burdensome to some business owners and other residents. However, what I observe is that city government is a balancing act; there are advantages and disadvantages to every decision made; finding solutions which carry a net benefit for the most people should be our underlying goal. Citizens of Homer have invested much energy, money and other resources into creating the community we currently enjoy; a contributing factor that supported these endeavors is the cohesive foundation provided by the city of Homer. The city should prioritize ensuring the continuance and improvement of a solid infrastructure which includes core services alongside other essential services and the city enterprise functions. Among other projects, broadening the capacity of the Port and Harbor will directly or indirectly benefit economic development across the spectrum of businesses.

2. Do you support Proposition 1, the proposal to write a city charter that would make Homer a Home Rule city? Why?

Sarno: I support Proposition 1, the proposal to commission a city charter to make Homer a Home Rule City, if the voters approve. A good city charter is understandable and, compared to the city code, brief. The general principle of Home Rule is: city government derives its authority from the consent of the governed. I support a city manager/council form of government to promote administrative continuity regardless of who holds office. I have a passion for constitutional law and clear language. As charter commissioners research and write our city charter we have a unique opportunity to promote civic education, listen to the people of Homer, and write a historic document. Our charter should embody regional values: self-reliance, love of the outdoors and taking care of the community. Our charter should embody the concerns of the young who will inherit the self-governing city of Homer and a warming planet.

Wythe: My purpose for serving on the council is to represent the community and if the voters decide to support a Home Rule Commission, I am interested in participating both to provide a council perspective and from an academic point of view. It is not common for an established city to take on the transition to Home Rule and the opportunity to participate intrigues me. From an inside perspective, the governmental format that we have now works fine in most situations; however, in our diverse community it is inevitable that there is a citizen group that feels they are unheard when decisions are made that have impacts on them personally. Changing the dynamics of how decisions are made will not eliminate this in my opinion. The Council is elected to make decisions on behalf of the citizens that elect them and presumably that would remain the case.

Arno: I support Prop 1. I believe in giving everything a chance and I am excited to see what comes of the Home Rule idea. It may be a chance to make Homer a better place for everyone.

Arnold: Yes, I support Home Rule. The state of Alaska describes Home Rule as “maximum local self-government, setting the frame work of laws that can only be changed by the people.” Nearly twice as many Alaskans already live in Home Rule governments compared to our current general law municipal governments. A Home Rule charter will be the equivalent of our own local government constitution. We the people will be free to decide our form of city government (mayor-council, council-manager, and so on); we can limit the amount of taxes, how it can be levied and set rules regarding their use.

Lewis: I’m not for or against Home Rule. However, I’m not in favor of the slate of candidates who want to write the charter, so I will be voting no.

Lowe: Developing a Home Rule Charter is not the best choice at this time. Many concepts of Home Rule are interesting and are possibly better than our current system in some aspects. Typically whether to follow a Home Rule or a first class model is determined when a city is incorporated. There will be costs both financially and in volunteer hours to develop a new charter. That cost is unacceptable because the charter may be rejected by voters or, if accepted, would probably have insubstantial impact on the overall functioning of the city. It is unlikely that by introducing the complicated and time-consuming process of developing a charter we will generate a significant increase in public participation. A strong-mayor model increases the politicization of the office, and decisions may be influenced by re-election positioning. Currently the city manager is held accountable by the elected city council, yet provides continuity in administration.

3. What role, if any, should the city play in increasing and promoting recreational opportunities within the city? How do you envision the future of the HERC, the Homer Education and Recreation Complex? Where does it fit on your priority list?

Sarno: Education, culture, and recreation are why families choose to live in Homer. Pursue the possibility of a recreational service area. The Homer Education and Recreation Complex should be saved and used, not only for sports, but also for regular educational public assemblages to bring together the community around popular projects. The public support, financial, material and volunteer energy generated by music, dance and food can accomplish miracles. Beautiful playgrounds, safe trails, and handsome public buildings can be built using minimal tax money. The city can provide land, speed the permitting process, and guarantee loans, while Homer’s many civic organizations can provide hundreds of volunteers working tens of thousands of hours. Number one on my priority list: Save the gymnasium, reinstate the Boys and Girls Club, and give the HERC building to Homer’s nonprofit community to renovate and administer the building as intended, for educational, recreational and cultural purposes.

Wythe: The HERC has been a constant topic of discussion for the 10 years I have been on the council, as have funding for recreational and nonprofit organizations. The council has traditionally worked to balance the community desire for support in these areas with the fiduciary responsibility for core services such as fire, police and roads. One way that this was accomplished was by reducing the property tax mill rate and increasing the sales tax to allow for the many nonresident users of our community to contribute to the operating expenses. The loss of revenue related to the winter sales tax exemption has substantially eliminated this contribution. As general expenses continue to rise funds are becoming more limited. In addition, state and federal funding assistance is becoming scarce. Just as it is becoming more expensive for individuals to go to the gas station and pay for utilities, it has become more expensive to meet the operational needs at the city.

Arno: I think Homer should promote the recreational opportunities we have here. I also think if there is a need for more recreation maybe the city should open up some more property for development of more recreation, but I do not see the city paying for everything that everyone wants. For example, Karen Hornaday Park. The city provided the property and the citizens pitched in their time and developed an amazing place for everyone. As far as the HERC building goes, I am on the fence with that. I think that we could use more indoor space and we need more opportunities for our youth, but what is the economical viability of the building? I think the jury is still out on that one and I sure don’t have the answer to that.

Arnold: I find the current council’s outlook on the HERC building disturbing. That it should be torn down at a huge cost to the citizens of Homer. Although this building needs a ton of work it has an amazing gym and I believe this building as a recreational complex would be a greater benefit to all the people of Homer and the outlying communities than the current council’s proposal.

Lewis: The city needs to take the lead on recreation which is one of the main attractions people/businesses look at when relocating. Trails, ease of movement and diverse recreational facilities are important to residents. We have a 60 year old building not worth fixing, and gym the same age that is worth saving. I hope we can do it. We have the needs assessment happening, and I look forward to the results which should reflect what people want and are willing to pay for.

Lowe: Many studies demonstrate the link between mental, physical and social health of individuals and their communities and available recreation, art and parks opportunities. While not typically included as a core service of the city, recreation is inextricably linked to the success of our community and individuals, businesses and the city should find ways to support it. Unfortunately recreational opportunities in general and the HERC building in particular are currently lumped into one conversation. The HERC site provides a setting for various recreational activities which serve many community members. There are numerous long-term problems presented because of the age of the building. The city must continue to proceed cautiously when options for renovation or replacement are considered. If the HERC building is removed guaranteeing an alternate venue is crucial for continuity of community health. Developing a plan which provides continued and improved recreational opportunities is among my top priorities.

4. What approach would you take to a new Public Safety Building? Where does it fit on your priority list?

Sarno: My lifelong motto is “Safety First.” Homer police and fire departments currently operate in buildings too small and outdated. Periodic droughts endanger our regional forests, and our volunteer fire department is crucial to fire safety. Homer’s police department plays a key role in protecting public safety and solving crime. A new public safety building is needed for the city of Homer. This expensive project (estimates run to $21 million) should use mostly federal and state funding; Homer cannot possibly fund this building through tax revenues. The building should welcome, rather than repel and intimidate, the public. The city should not demolish the HERC building, an existing, popular, usable educational/recreational structure, to build a public safety building. The city should consider all alternatives.

Wythe: A new Public Safety building is high on my priority list for a number of reasons. First, public safety is a core responsibility for a First Class city and an area that has had recent growing concern. Secondly, the OSHA general duty clause requires an employer to provide a safe working environment. Few could argue that the current working conditions for the fire and police employees are safe. There are also concerns regarding the current facilities being inadequate to meet the current community needs and certainly inadequate to meet any type of expansion needs as our community grows.
Currently I serve on the Public Safety Building Committee where consideration is being given to the needs of these facilities for the next 20 years and will continue to review design and sighting options, as well as funding sources. Finding the most economical way to meet this need is a focal point for the committee and all meetings are announced and open to the public.

Arno: Public safety is my number one concern and it is one of the essentials that government was designed to provide. My concerns with the public safety building is what will best benefit the citizens of Homer for the long and short term and how is our buck best spent.

Arnold: This is another great example of the current backwards priority list of the city council. Instead of remodeling and adding on to the current fire and police stations they want to spend $15 million on a new one. Maybe instead of this grandiose project we put in more sidewalks? More paved roads and other much needed projects that actually benefit the people of Homer.
Lewis: Public safety is the city’s number one priority, and those who we entrust with that job need to have a building that is equal to the task.

Lowe: A long-term approach which addresses current, 5-year and 25-year needs is prudent for all city planning. Homer’s police station has been remodeled and retrofitted multiple times over the years, allowing it to serve the community adequately until fairly recently. Further updates to the current building are unrealistic due to limited space and layout constraints. The fire hall also requires several changes to meet immediate and short-term future needs. Upgrades may address these concerns for now. The current location will not accommodate a ladder-truck due to the pitch of the exit apron. In addition to enhancing fire response effectiveness, a local ladder-truck will reduce fire insurance premiums for local businesses. Housing the two departments in one building would allow for some economies of scale and would allow for shared facilities within the structure. Developing a fiscally feasible plan to house Public Safety is one of my top priorities.

5. Would you have done anything differently on citywide natural gas improvement district and assessments? Please explain.

Sarno: I would initiate debate on Homer’s energy future: events, mailings, hearings, classroom talks, luncheons, information booths, to educate and solicit public comment. I would encourage young people, who will inherit our city infrastructure, to research all forms of energy. After our sub-arctic city considers how best to heat and light our future, and discusses the advantages and costs of each technology, we would express popular will about energy infrastructure in propositions, ordinances and resolutions for the city council. One hundred wind turbines on Bald Mountain could power, heat and light this city and might have been a better long-term investment. Tide power holds great promise for Homer. Consult local wizards. Natural gas is now part of the mix, and does benefit large energy users. Enstar should have had to invest more. It’s unfair that elders on fixed income who do not use natural gas must pay the assessment.

Wythe: I have been recused from the natural gas line discussion at the table for a perceived conflict of interest and as such have not been privy to all of the details regarding choices that the council has made. The citywide gas project was not without its critics and certainly I was not a proponent of the special improvement district process that was implemented. That being said, there is no point in second guessing decisions that have been made and acted upon, or crying over split milk. The line is in; there are well over a thousand connected customers; and all that remains is for the council to determine how the bill is to be allocated to the residents. I don’t envy them that task.

Arno: Natural gas — can you say we got scammed under the cover of darkness? If you think about how many people vote in Homer — about 2,000 give or take a few out of the 5,000 plus people that live here — and that not voting was a yes vote. It was a scam and the city government knows that and they should be ashamed of themselves. Not only that we paid for someone else’s infastructure. Yes it will benefit some but there are some that will never see the benefit that they paid for.

Arnold: Yes, I don’t believe it was right to assess each of us thousands of dollars just to give away the infrastructure to a private cooperation. I believe the city should have created a separate co-op much like we have with HEA. The co-op could have bought the gas at whole-sale prices from Enstar and distributed it through our own lines we paid for. Lower the cost by not sending our money up the road. And create more Homer-based jobs in the process.

Lewis: No, I think that the way the assessment is levied is the fairest way. Some disagree, but that would be the case no matter how we chose to levy the assessments. There are those who scored big time on this, and those who didn’t. But the city as a whole has access to natural gas which we don’t with water and sewer.

Lowe: Discussions regarding the fuel needs of Homer happened for many years. Fuel oil became increasingly expensive and is undesirable environmentally. Ideally I prefer renewable resources; however, natural gas provides some advantages over fuel oil, environmentally and financially. While the conversation up to 2011 was lengthy, when Enstar entered the picture decisions appeared to be made more hurriedly than is typical for a project of this scope. I am worried about shortages of natural gas in the near future. I am concerned that individuals’ costs of switching to natural gas will not be offset by savings in monthly bills. Larger entities and businesses are more likely to benefit from such savings. City residents received a lengthy letter providing an opportunity to state objection to the plans; many people did not understand the implications of the proposal or how to effectively participate. I advocate for increased transparency in decisions of this magnitude.