After listening to public testimony and making a handful of amendments, the Homer City Council, minus council member Beau Burgess who was excused, passed the city’s 2014 budget on Monday.
The amendments included:
• $19,000 for the Homer Foundation, to come from budget surplus;
• $20,000 to the Pratt Museum, to come from the budget surplus and the general fund balance;
• $10,000 to economic development advertising in support of marine trades, to come from the legal services budget;
• $18,453 to fund a full-time children’s librarian, to come from the legal services budget;
• $4,000 to fund a six-week citizen’s academy for educating the public on the operations of city government, to come from the general fund balance;
• $15,000 for the engineering design and permitting of a Seafarer’s Memorial parking lot expansion, to come from HART, Homer Accelerated Roads and Trails, funds.
“That calls our budget complete,” said Mayor Beth Wythe. “We are that far ahead of the federal government and not going to argue about it and we can pay our bills.”
“And it’s balanced,” said City Manager Walt Wrede.
At the Nov. 25 meeting, the council discussed a $20,000 reduction to the Pratt Museum and a $19,000 reduction to the Homer Foundation.
Those were clearly fighting words with the public ready to battle to keep those two contributions in the city’s budget, as well as find $35,000 to fund a recreation needs assessment.
“I feel compelled to appear before you,” said former Mayor Jim Hornaday, who sits on the Pratt’s board of directors and is active with numerous nonprofits. He urged continued funding of the Pratt and the Homer Foundation, encouraged the council to consider what it would save by converting to natural gas and to think about reinstating a year-round food tax, “the quickest way to get additional revenues.”
As far as the community’s recreational needs, Hornaday said, “I think it’s time to take another try at a borough-wide service area.”
He also took advantage of his three-minute public comment time to address a citizen-led effort to ask voters’ input on changing Homer from a first-class to a home-rule city.
“Personally I hope we don’t go ahead with spending time on the home rule issue,” said Hornaday.
Saying she understood the budgetary challenges facing the council, Milli Martin, former board president of the Pratt, listed all the Pratt’s many benefits to the arts, culture, recreation, education, social services “and other vital programs of this community.”
“The $20,000 shortfall the museum is facing is serious,” said Martin. “It impacts the museum’s ability to leverage more funding for grants, the lifeblood that keeps it going.”
A lifetime resident of the area, but not of the city, Ina Jones also spoke in favor of the Pratt funding.
“The Pratt Museum helps safeguard our history and culture. I urge you not to cut their funding,” said Jones. “They help my children’s children understand what Homer was, how it began, cultures across the bay and how we interacted. They’re our safeguard. … So, I urge your support to go back to the Pratt.”
Joy Steward of the Homer Foundation reviewed how the city’s contribution has been used to develop a grants program and provide review, oversight and accountability “with no fees or charges to the city. When you give us an allocation, those funds are passed directly to the organizations.”
Representing the Homer chapter of Special Olympics, Carol Schuler spoke in support of the needs assessment for recreation. The chapter provides year-round sports training for individuals with intellectual disabilities on the southern Kenai Peninsula and Schuler noted frequent difficulty finding venues and securing gym and pool time.
Mike Hawfield, who lives outside the city, but owns property and works within the city limits, drew the council’s attention to Homer’s “amazing volunteers” that not only support the Pratt and nonprofits benefiting from the Homer Foundation, but also were testifying in support of those organizations.
Referring to Hornaday’s comments about reinstating a year-round tax, former council member Kevin Hogan cautioned against increased taxes.
“I don’t want to see this being used as an excuse to implement more revenue through taxes,” said Hogan. “Other than that, if we have the money to do the study, that’s fine, but don’t use it as an excuse to implement new taxes.”
The council also heard criticism from representatives of Homer Voice for Business.
“Since 2011, our total revenues have increased 4 percent and expenditures 16 percent,” said Paul Hueper, who went on to break down those increases by city departments. “Personally, I don’t think increasing our taxes is going to be a solution. … One way we’ll get the budget under control is if we start cutting, start getting reasonable about it.”
Strong leadership was the solution offered by Mike Dye, also with Homer Voice for Business.
“The people in this community will support and rally around you if you’ll show some leadership in this and catch up with what business and industries have had to do in town,” said Dye.
Although not discussed specifically during the evening, the rising cost of city employees’ health care was brought up by council member Bryan Zak during his closing comments.
“We haven’t forgotten about health care,” said Zak. “The costs are really what gave us the hurt about how to get through the budget. … We’re going to continue to address that.”
The next meeting of the Homer City Council is 6 p.m. Jan. 13.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.