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Council: Show us the money

Posted: November 26, 2013 - 5:07pm

Money, money, money. Where to get it? How to spend it?

With the city’s 2014 budget before them, those were the questions guiding Homer’s six council members and mayor during a work session, Committee of the Whole meeting and regular council meeting Monday.

Mayor Beth Wythe drew the first line in the sand during the council’s afternoon work session.

“We are obligated to provide specific services as a first class city. Anything beyond that is a bonus,” said Wythe. “When we’re looking at things that have to go out of the budget, are those the items not required for a first class city? From my chair and from being on the council for nine years, when they (the public) say they do not want to pay taxes, they’re saying it’s OK to cut services. But no one wants to do that, be the guy to cut services.”

Council member Barbara Howard also took a conservative approach.

“We talk about being concerned about (employee) health care, we’re talking about giving the chamber of commerce money, the Pratt Museum money,” said Howard. “Where are you guys getting this money from? Somebody has to say we have to do the core work first. What is left is left and then we have that discussion. … Eventually we’re going to have to start being responsible people when it comes to managing this budget.”

The same concerns surfaced when Matt Steffy of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission spoke about the importance of a needs assessment “to gather information about what the community is made up of, what the needs are, what the current resources are and what potential resources there may be.” 

From that information, a path or plan could be mapped out to connect needs and resources, said Steffy, adding that the cost for a needs assessment could be “between $0 and $100,000.”

“One of the things I was curious about was will this needs assessment bring up how people want to pay for recreation,” said council member David Lewis.

“It can,” said Steffy.

Public testimony regarding the 2014 budget focused on two areas: the needs assessment and city employees’ increased contribution to health insurance.

“I would just like for you to take into consideration … these are the people who answer those 911 calls. They’re the ones who pull you out of the ditch. They’re the EMTs, firefighters, the ones who plow roads and fill potholes and repair the water and sewer,” said city employee Jo Earls. “I really hope that you’ll put faces on these numbers because it is a big financial burden.“

Christine Szocinski, a former city employee and wife of a current city employee, made an emotional plea to the council not to increase employees’ cost of health insurance.

“My husband and I were fortunate to get jobs here a year ago. We were not aware of what would happen with insurance,” said Szocinski, adding that changes being proposed to the health insurance program equaled the couple’s mortagage payment.

“I can’t financially afford that,” said Szocinski.

Gail Edgerly, representing Homer Council of the Arts and the Homer Arts and Culture Alliance spoke in support of the needs assessment addressing arts and culture, as well as recreation, and the need for increased opportunities for area teens.

“We need to think deeply about the space we can offer our teens so they can come out of themselves, express themselves, feel valued in our community,” said Edgerly.

Kathy Beachy, representing Homer Little League, also spoke in favor of the city’s support of recreation.

“We’re excited about this community coming together to maintain fields, recreation that has been here for a long time and combining it with a new venue, to keep kids involved,” said Beachy.

David Branding, CEO of South Peninsula Behavioral Health Services and The Center, expressed his support for the needs assessment.

“Funding of a needs assessment for recreational and arts and culture movement in our community is directly in line with our organization’s long-term facility vision,” said Branding. “Funding a needs assessment is a great advantage.”

After listening to public testimony, the council offered several amendments to the city’s 2014 budget:

• Council member Lewis proposed transferring $10,000 from Parks and Recreation and $25,000 from Planning Reserves to pay for the needs assessment. That amendment was approved, with the $35,000 to be added to nearly $6,000 in public pledges for completing the needs assessment.

• Council member Howard proposed a budget amendment to fund two seasonal  EMT positions by eliminating a $22,000 lobbyist position, a $19,000 contribution to the Homer Foundation and $20,000 in support of the Pratt Museum. When Howard’s amendment failed, council member Beau Burgess, offered another approach: taking $15,000 from the general fund, eliminating $19,000 from the Homer Foundation and $20,000 from the Pratt. That would remove the city’s contribution to the Homer Foundation and reduce the contribution to the Pratt Museum to $46,500. The roll call vote was a tie, with Gus Van Dyke, Howard and Burgess voting yes and Lewis, Roberts and Bryan Zak voting no. Given the deciding vote, Mayor Wythe voted yes, approving the Burgess amendment.

Howard offered an amendment to fund a full-time dispatcher using $50,000 from new projected tax revenues. The amendment was approved.

• Burgess offered an amendment to increase funding for the Homer Chamber of Commerce from $40,000 to $50,000 from new projected tax revenue. That amendment was approved by the council, with Howard the only council member voting no.

There was lengthy council discussion on the cost of employee health insurance, with Wrede telling the council, “You’re going to have to either cut the entire program or raise more money. Neither of those are things I can do on my own. I had to bring you a balanced budget. We did that. I want to say I understand this hurts employees, but I don’t see a way out unless the council is ready to take some really bold steps.”

Wythe suggested continuing to look for more options.

“That would be my request to the council ... that you are committed to working on this project every single council meeting with the objective of a solution being reached early in the year,” said Wythe. “The employees we have won’t be able to sustain this and we can’t afford to not have qualified employees working for us.”

Howard said she couldn’t imagine what additional information the council needed.

“We’re down to a budget issue,” said Howard. “What it comes down to is it’s expensive. ... We want to keep good people, so we have to pay. How are we going to pay?”

Wythe agreed that the council members weren’t insurance rate-setters. 

“We don’t know how to do that, but we can have more options before us,” said Wythe.

“That’s the commitment I’d like to make to Homer city employees, that we are willing to put a little extra effort in trying to find out what’s available out there.”

Burgess seconded Wythe’s comments.

“We owe it to the city. We owe it to the taxpayers,” he said.

A second and final public hearing on the budget will be at the council’s next meeting, Dec. 9.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.

 

In other action, the Homer City Council:

• Postponed action on Ord. 13-42(A), amending the definition of “discontinued” in Homer City Code to extend the time required to discontinue a nonconforming use from 12 to 24 months, until after the Planning Commission’s Dec. 4 public hearing on the subject.

• Approved Ord. 13-43, authorizing expenditure of Homer Accelerated Water and Sewer Program funds for a Paradise Place sewer main extension and approving creation of a deferred assessment on the properties benefited.

• Approved a two-year, $40,000 contract with the Anderson Group for legislative consulting and lobbying services.

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