Council puts HART question on ballot

In a special election in 2015, voters passed Proposition 1 to suspend for three years the .75 percent of city sales taxes that goes into the Homer Accelerated Roads and Trails fund. That suspension allows the city to use HART sales taxes to fund general government, about $1 million in some years. With the suspension ending next year, the Homer City Council for the past few meetings has debated the future of HART and how that .75-percent sales tax could be used. Should the HART language be changed to allow other uses such as maintenance? Or should a portion of the tax be permanently redirected to the general fund?

At Monday night’s meeting, in a 6-0 vote the council chose Plan A, a slight change in city code to allow use of the HART fund for not just road and trail improvements and new construction, but also road and trail maintenance. Because how a sales tax would be appropriated would change, the modification to city code requires voter approval. Proposition 1, a question asking voter approval for the change, will go on the Oct. 3 city election ballot.

“This is a way to rob Peter to pay Paul,” is how council member David Lewis explained it.

If passed, Proposition 1 would not add a new sales tax. The .75-percent tax has been in place since October 1987 when it was created to upgrade substandard roads, and was modified in 2006 to extend the program for 20 years and add construction of new roads and trails. While the HART has been used for new road projects like the connection of Heath Street to Lake Street, efforts to create Special Assessment Districts for local roads have been less successful. It now has a balance of $5.8 million.

To reassure voters that they would not be voting on a new tax, council member Shelly Erickson introduced an amendment adding the word “existing” in the proposition’s title to read “Authorize the use of revenue from the existing 0.75 percent of the city sales tax dedicated to the Homer Accelerated Roads and Trails (HART) Program to include maintenance of local roads and trails.” That amendment also passed unanimously.

In a memorandum, City Manager Katie Koester outlined two options. Under Plan A, allowing the HART fund to be used for maintenance, about $812,000 would be saved to the general fund for usual maintenance such as snow plowing, street sweeping, dust control and asphalt sealing. Currently, road and trail maintenance is paid out of the general fund.

Plan B would redirect 0.50 percent of the HART sales tax to the general fund, leaving 0.25 percent to HART. Under that plan, the impact to the general fund would be about $860,000.

In public testimony, Dave Brann, a longtime advocate of trails in Homer, said he had concerns that trails construction and maintenance would be a low priority.

“I don’t want to see designated trails funds go away for snow plowing and maintenance,” he said.

Another trails advocate, Deb Lowney, agreed with Brann. She said she would feel more comfortable if a percentage was dedicated to roads and trails.

“We have a lot of pieces of trails in this community that don’t connect yet,” she said.

Council member Donna Aderhold asked Koester if the proposition could be changed to direct percentages to roads and trail. Koester said she would discourage trying to do that since a percentage of a percentage could be confusing to voters. The council backed off on doing that.

In other council actions, the council also approved spending $9,000 for the purchase of a pathway or sidewalk sanding unit. That money will come out of the general fund, but Koester noted that if the HART change had been in place, trails funds could have been used to purchase the sander.

The council also spent HART funds as part of a 50-percent match to a Alaska Transportation Alternatives Program grant to build sidewalks and make safety improvements on Soundview Avenue, a road connecting the Sterling Highway to Bartlett Street that passes West Homer Elementary School and goes through a residential neighborhood. The council appropriated $210,000 as its match to the state’s $520,000 grant.

Soundview resident Coletta Walker spoke in favor of the Soundview Avenue safety improvements. She also urged the council to take efforts to slow traffic such as adding speed humps or stop signs at some intersections.

“Getting a sidewalk for the kids is great, but for the parents, too,” she said. “It’s hazardous. We’re out there saying ‘slow down, slow down, slow down.’”

Council member Donna Aderhold, a bicycle and pedestrian commuter, said she heard Walker’s concerns. Lewis asked Public Works Director Carey Meyer if the city could add stop signs. Meyer said stop signs could be added if warranted, and that safety is certainly a warrant. Meyer also said the Soundview improvements would include speed humps.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.

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