The Homer City Council needs to come up with a new song and dance. While it may be hard for some of them to believe, residents are tired of hearing the same old refrain, which is always a version of: “If you want ____________ (fill in the blank with what’s on your wish list for the city to accomplish), are you willing to do away with seasonal sales tax exemption on nonprepared food items?”
Call us stupid — the council certainly implies that those who favor the exemption must not understand the most basic rules of budgeting — but we don’t believe residents are willing to give up the exemption. And we don’t think they’re stupid. And we don’t believe they have sent the council mixed messages about it.
Here are the crystal clear messages we’ve heard every time citizens have voted on this issue and every time it’s been debated:
1.Residents don’t want their food to be taxed. They believe taxing food is regressive and hurts the poor. They favor a seasonal sales tax exemption on nonprepared food items. In fact, if asked, we suspect most residents would support a year-round sales tax exemption on food. Would that really put the city on the road to ruin?
2.Residents want the council to look at other ways to fund programs and services that need funding. This is not “cognitive dissonance.” It’s urging council members to find new ways to do things. Is that really asking too much of our elected leaders?
Using funding for recreation programs — perhaps even a community recreation center — as the carrot to get rid of the seasonal sales tax exemption on food is disingenuous at best. The city attorney has told council members that they cannot bind future councils to the proposed .25 percent sales tax dedication to parks and recreation programs. That should be enough to doom the proposal before it even gets off the ground.
If the council wants to dedicate sales tax funds to parks and recreation programs then it should do so cleanly and in a more permanent way: Ask voters if they want to raise the sales tax by .25 percent and dedicate those funds to parks and recreation programs.
But leave the seasonal tax exemption on food alone.
There may be a better way, however.
ReCreate Rec, a citizen group supporting community recreation, is talking to Kenai Peninsula Borough officials about creating a recreation service area that would include and tax southern peninsula residents outside of Homer. This is doing what the council continually chides residents to do: get involved and find ways to pay for what you want.
That’s why it’s difficult to understand why the council is moving ahead with the idea of repealing the seasonal sales tax exemption on food and asking voters if they want to dedicate .25 percent of sales tax revenue to a parks and recreation department. A citizens group is exploring ideas to pay for what they want and the council starts running in a different direction. To some observers, it looks like the council will use any excuse to get rid of the food exemption.
Council members should let ReCreate Rec come up with some proposals before deciding that eliminating the sales tax exemption on food is the only way to raise funding for parks and recreation — or any other worthy program.
And they should try to hear what voters have said repeatedly: We don’t want food to be taxed. Period.