No decision on natural gas condo assessments
In spite of Superior Court Judge Charles Huguelet’s decision in Castner vs. the city of Homer, condominium owners within the Homer Natural Gas Special Assessment District will have to wait awhile before the city decides how individual condos will be assessed.
“There is nothing about what the judge decided that makes the decision of how we assess condos clear cut,” said Beau Burgess, Homer City Council member, during the council’s regular meeting on Monday. “We are really trying to look out for the taxpayers’ bottom line. It’s a complicated issue. We’re trying to resolve it as fast as we can.”
In March 2013, Ken Castner, who owns several business condominiums within the special assessment district, filed a lawsuit in Superior Court against the city and the city council. Castner was seeking to overturn an ordinance assessing property owners, including individual condo owners, $3,282 per parcel to fund construction of a natural gas distribution line. In February of this year, Huguelet overturned the part that treated condominium units the same as parcels.
At Monday’s council meeting, Burgess said it isn’t a one-size-fits all decision.
“There are multiple components,” Burgess said.
As examples, Burgess noted the difference between one six-condo building with a single connection line and one building with multiple connections.
A project timeline provided by City Manager Walt Wrede indicated a decision regarding condo assessments would be made at the council’s Sept. 8 meeting.
“We might move it up a little sooner than that,” said Wrede, encouraging the council to “make very public what the council is thinking on that. Let people know if they object, the proper time to do that is when the final assessments are out there.”
What began last year as a 74-mile project to deliver natural gas to the Homer area is quickly nearing completion, according to Wrede.
“The construction crews are doing a great job. They’re moving ahead of what we initially thought the schedule would be,” said Wrede. “As of the last meeting, there was only about four miles left of the distribution system to install.”
Most of what remains is along Kachemak Drive. Wrede said that section could be completed in three to four weeks, followed by some cleanup, restoration and service line connections yet to be done.
“We anticipated the worst, tried to prepare the public for traffic delays, dust, road closures, trees coming down, but really, very little of that happened,” said Wrede. “I can’t say enough about the work these guys did.”
The construction contract signed by the city and Enstar was not to exceed $12,160,632. Wrede said he was “cautiously optimistic” that the project would come in at or under budget.
The final price tag will affect the $3,282 individual assessment proposed by the city when first developing the boundaries of the area within which natural gas would be delivered. Also having an impact will be a final accounting of areas within the special assessment district that were exempted for a variety of reasons such as parcels where development is impossible.
“Once the project is done and final costs are calculated in September, we’ll be sitting down with Enstar engineers, making sure we’re on the same page as far as who got served and who didn’t so we know who is in the assessment district and who’s not,” said Wrede.
Also to be considered is the “free main allowance,” a rebate the city will receive from Enstar for each customer that has connected to natural gas.
Jim Lavrakas, a condo owner who testified before the council last year, repeated the concerns he and his wife Ruth have regarding the assessments.
“At the time I said that Ruth and I could afford the assessment if it came to that, but many condo owners have decided to downsize. They own a condo because they want to be smaller, they’re retired or on fixed incomes or just don’t have the wherewithal to have this kind of assessment put on them,” said Lavrakas. “If it’s a single line to the lot, that’s what the assessment should be.”
Referencing Huguelet’s decision, Karen Berg of Quiet Creek Condominiums said, “I am here to speak strictly to the fact that I have read the judge’s opinion and I believe that opinion should follow through to all condominium owners, not just the gentleman who brought suit.”
A proposal from Kachemak City Mayor Phil Morris may resolve how Homer charges its neighboring city for water and sewer. In Wrede’s city manager report, he outlined Morris’ proposal for customers to be given the choice of paying for an assumed monthly average of 3,500 gallons or paying for installation of a water meter and paying by the gallon. Council member Burgess recommended the same option be given to city of Homer residents who provide their own water but use city sewer.
Asked by Mayor Beth Wythe when he could present the council with an amended fee schedule reflecting those changes, Wrede said he would have it available by the council’s Aug. 11 meeting.
Turning attention to a new public safety building being considered for the city, Carey Meyer, public works director, announced information about the project that is on display at the Homer Public Library.
“The Public Safety Building Review Committee is in the process of trying to inform the public about why we need a new public safety building and if you go to the library, that tries to answer the questions,” said Meyer.
The next meeting of the Public Safety Building Review Committee is at City Hall at 5:30 p.m. today.
The upcoming municipal election is Oct. 7. The ballot includes candidates for mayor, the city council seat currently held by Barbara Howard and the seat currently held by David Lewis. The candidacy filing period is Aug. 1-15.
The Homer City Council has a scheduled work session to discuss employee health care on Aug. 4 at 6 p.m. The next regular meeting of the council is 6 p.m. Aug. 11, with a work session at 4 p.m. and a Committee of the Whole meeting at 5 p.m.
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In other action, the city council:
• Appointed Savanna Bradley to the Planning Commission, Patrick Brown to the Economic Development Advisory Commission and Erin Hollowell to the Public Arts Committee;
• Approved unanimously Ordinance 14-20(S), adding “open air business” as a permitted use in the General Commercial 2 Zoning District;
• Approved unanimously Ordinance 14-30, appropriating an $110,000 U.S. Fish and Wildlife grant for reconstruction of a section of Beluga Slough Trail and providing an in-kind match in the form of design, permitting and project management services for a totaling $25,000;
• Approved unanimously Ordinance 14-31, appropriating $84,000 for a traffic calming project in Old Town;
• Failed to introduce Ordinance 14-32, amending city code with regard to the duties and powers of the Homer Advisory Planning Commission regarding subdivisions, with council members Burgess, Francie Roberts, Barbara Howard and Gus VanDyke voting no; David Lewis and Bryan Zak voting yes;
• Introduced on the consent agenda Ordinance 14-33, appropriating a $6,650 state of Alaska grant for books and library materials, public hearing and second reading on Aug. 11;
• Introduced on the consent agenda Ordinance 14-34, amending city code to permit changeable copy signs and signs with internal illumination within the Gateway Business District, public hearing and second reading Aug. 11;
• Introduced Ordinance 14-35, prohibiting the use of e-cigarettes in city structures, vehicles and watercraft, public hearing and second reading Aug. 11, with Roberts, Howard, Lewis, Zak and Van Dyke voting yes; Burgess no;
• Introduced Ordinance 14-36;
• Introduced on the consent agenda Ordinance 14-37, appropriating $19,000 to bring the HERC, Homer Education and Recreation Complex, into compliance with fire code, public hearing and second reading Aug. 11;
• Introduced unanimously Ordinance 14-38, with a clerical correction, public hearing and second reading Aug. 11;
• Introduced unanimously Ordinance 14-39, appropriating $80,000 to purchase property for a new water storage tank, public hearing and second reading Aug. 11;
• Adopted on the consent agenda Resolution 14-079, submitting to voters the question of electing a charter commission in the Oct. 7 municipal election;
• Adopted on the consent agenda Resolution 14-080, awarding artwork contracts for the new harbormaster office complex to Joshua Nordstrom of Homer, $5,200; Adrien Segal of Oakland, Calif., $10,500; Julianne Tomich of Homer, $3,500;
• Adopted on the consent agenda Resolution 14-081, approving a memorandum of agreement between the city and state of Alaska regarding improvements to Pioneer Dock.
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