While the Homer City Council’s desire to be “uniform and fair” when it comes to assessments for natural gas is admirable, that desire begs the question: Fair to whom?
More than a year ago, Jan. 6, 2014, Kenai Superior Court Judge Charles Huguelet ruled that the way the city chose to assess condominiums for natural gas was not fair. He called it “arbitrary and unreasonable.”
The city chose not to appeal that decision. Now, all these months later, the council is asking for a Supreme Court review of Huguelet’s ruling that the city stop using its preferred method for assessing condo owners in the Homer’s natural gas special assessment district.
Why? Why now?
One of the clear messages that came out of the discussions on how best to assess for natural gas was: There is no one way that will please everyone. Every scenario had pluses and minuses. In each, there were some citizens who could claim being treated unfairly.
If the council wants to talk fairness, what about these issues: Is it fair that a big business pay the same assessment as a mom-and-pop store? Is it fair that those with little income and small houses pay the same as those with lots of money and huge houses? Is it fair that no matter what the city does, some people will not be able to afford the changeover to natural gas, but still have to pay the assessment?
But “fairness” really isn’t the point. Didn’t council members learn in kindergarten life isn’t fair and sometimes doing the right thing has the appearance of being unfair?
Homer condominium owners have both rightness and the law on their side. Huguelet’s ruling does not make them a “preferred class of property owners who will pay less than other property owners,” as Mayor Pro Tempore Francie Roberts read in a statement Monday night. It just gives them their rights under established condominium law. As Huguelet noted in his original decision, “There is no logical nexus between the charge to plaintiff and the benefit of having access to the natural gas line. Other lots with multiple habitable units were give the same access to the natural gas line and only charged one fee.”
A condo building receives the same benefit as an apartment building — access to gas service from a distribution line running by a lot.
Most Homer residents understand this. Condo owners should not be blamed if their property rights interfere with the council’s preferred method of assessing for natural gas. And the council should not try to pit other residents against the condominium owners. We all need to stand up for each other.
Bringing natural gas to Homer was beneficial for the community. Arguing about assessments for condominiums is not. The council’s refusal to accept Judge Huguelet’s order — especially when the city chose not to appeal the ruling within the designated timeframe — makes council members look obstinate and more than a little like they’re unwilling to follow the rules if those rules don’t agree with them.
The council can be proud of its work to get natural gas to Homer. Such a big project isn’t going to be without challenges — like how best to assess everyone.
In this case, the assessment method decided on is not only unfair to condo owners, it’s unlawful. The council and city need to recognize that and move forward to right that wrong.