We’ve grown so accustomed to reading about federal and state government deficit spending that people’s eyes start to glaze over when the talk turns to Homer’s own budget dilemma. As civic leaders ask us for solutions we end up with so many opinions that it’s hard to know where to begin. In the final analysis the cost of government is all about taxes. And if we are smart, taxes should be all about fairness.
How city revenues are spent and how much city employees are paid is the responsibility and privilege of elected officials. They may ask us what we think but public opinion is generally as diverse and divided as the opinions of city council members. About the only things city residents really control is sales and property tax rates which determines how much money government has to spend.
We have reached a point in the growing cost of city government that the council will have little choice but to ask us to vote on a sales tax increase. To be fair there are many people who believe we can solve this fiscal problem simply by reducing city programs, services and salaries. To be fair to the other side we have all these services because a significant portion of the public asked for them. And we have decent city salaries because a living wage is the way society should strive to treat people.
Getting to the issue of fair tax policy requires us to take a hard look at what our city has become. Over the last 20 years we have evolved into a summer time visitor destination and this is no small matter for us to consider.
We have been forced to plan city services around the maximum population densities which occur during three months of the year. Roads, sewer and water, police, fire, parks and rec, administration, harbor, etc. — have all been upgraded to meet our needs when all these summer folks come here to share our home.
The fiscal decisions have been ours, but we made them on behalf of other people who don’t live here year around. If we want to maintain the city as we know it, our job is to find the fairest way to raise revenue from all the people who benefit from city services. Taxes and fees which single out small groups of people and businesses seem like unnecessary targeting.
And the council can do these things without public approval. Not good — really not good. Reinstituting the winter food tax to pay for summer services seems unfair as well.
What does work and seems fair is raising the basic sales tax rate a very moderate amount. It would capture visitor and part-time resident revenues and a certain amount from residents. It also appears to be about the same amount as would be raised by eliminating the winter food tax exemption.
But the fairness of that approach extends beyond the simple math because the city at large would still have to approve it by voting. If the majority believes it’s time for the city to downsize, the tax proposal will be voted down. If the majority believe otherwise — then so be it.
Mike Heimbuch is a longtime Homer resident and former member of the Homer City Council.