Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:29 PM on Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mayor opposes city's help on gas line



By MICHEL ARMSTRONG AND McKibben Jackinsky
Staff Writers

Homer residents took to the microphone at Monday's regular Homer City Council meeting to express their views on formation of a citywide Natural Gas Homer Special Assessment District. Among those testifying was Homer Mayor Beth Wythe.

Before commenting, Wythe — who has been determined to have a conflict of interest on the natural gas issue due to her employment with Homer Electric Association Inc. — passed the mayoral gavel to council member and mayor pro tempore Francie Roberts.

"I am gravely opposed to this," said Wythe, adding, "I am not opposed to natural gas. I am opposed to the city putting their finger into helping Enstar (Natural Gas) fund the project."

Wythe's comments also were included in a formal objection as a property owner she submitted to the City Clerk's office. Wythe noted concerns about the city having "no means, or clearly identified plan" for financing repayment of a bond to build a natural gas distribution system within the city if repayment had to begin before assessment funds were received.

Wythe also stated the city "cannot afford to bond for $12 million or more for a project that does not belong to the city." She expressed concern doing so would place required maintenance and expansion projects on hold while the bond was paid down.

Wythe criticized the requirement that any of the 3,855 impacted property owners within the city who object to formation of the HSAD file a written objection with the City Clerk's office. The deadline to do so is 5 p.m. Jan. 25. Lack of an objection will be viewed as support for the project.

According to City Clerk Jo Johnson, half of 3,855 (1,928) have to object in order to kill the current plan.

As of Tuesday, 288 written objections had been received, with three to five being received each day, said Johnson.

"If you believe that is answering the question, you are extremely short-sighted," said Wythe of the written-objection requirement.

The proposed boundaries of the HSAD are the city limits with the exception of about 10 percent of the properties within the city due to access or land use restrictions. The remaining lots would be assessed an estimated $3,283.30 to be paid over 10 years with annual payments of $405. The city also includes condominium owners as lot or property owners on the assessment roll, something several condo owners objected to in public testimony Monday night.

One condo owner, Jim Lavrakas, questioned how the city interpreted state law to include condo owners.

"It's basically unfair," he said.

Testifying on Monday was something Wythe had not planned to do, she told the Homer News on Tuesday. Wythe was the last of more than a dozen to testify before the council, all of them critical of the project.

"I am interested in the (HSAD). I am interested in natural gas, but from all the research I've done, I won't be able to afford it without a really good low-interest loan," said Meg Mitchell, who estimated the cost to convert her appliances, have the proper plumbing installed and the hook-up would total $3,000-$5,000 without taking the assessment into consideration. "I'm interested, but I can't afford it."

When Wythe concluded her remarks and took her place back at the council table, there was loud applause from the audience.

"That was quite surprising to me," she said.

Asked by the Homer News if her concerns related to her employment with HEA and any negative impact natural gas would have on the co-ops business, Wythe said, "My position has nothing to do with HEA. In fact, the general manager came out early on and said this was a win-win if it improved the economy in Homer. ... My opinion is strictly personal. I am adamantly opposed to government enforcing services customers are not interested in paying for."

While the council won't take final action on the assessment district until its next meeting on Jan. 28, it did pass a related ordinance that eliminated a deferral on privately owned infrastructure assessment districts for low-income seniors age 62 and older. For other improvement districts, low-income seniors can defer an assessment until they sell the property or they and their spouse die.

Council member Beau Burgess put forth another ordinance on Monday that created a needs-based deferral rather than one only for low-income seniors. That approach got support from one person testifying on the ordinances.

"I would like to see if there are deferments, that it is made toward low-income people in general, and not just seniors," said Christine Szocinski. "There are a lot of people struggling."

The council accepted an amendment by Burgess setting the low-income standard at less than 100 percent of the U.S. Health and Human Services poverty guidelines for Alaska, down from the 200 percent he originally proposed. The council approved the introduction on first reading of the amended ordinance, with a public hearing and final action also at the Jan. 28 meeting.

At the close of the Monday meeting, Burgess spoke in favor of natural gas.

"It's a trade off between natural gas and fuel oil," he said. "When you think of those two commodities ... the world is awash in natural gas. We are part of the world natural gas market."

About building out local improvement districts by neighborhood rather than the city as a whole, Burgess said, "If you want to know what it's like, look at water and sewer and you are looking at natural gas in the future."

He also urged property owners to do their homework before making objections.

"Make sure you're objecting to it with legitimate, useful information," said Burgess.

Following the meeting, councilmember James Dolma said he thought Burgess' comments were a good summation.

"A lot of folks come forward with all sorts of reasons that have nothing to do with rather this is a good project or a bad project," said Dolma. "

He also expressed support for a citywide approach.

"For folks on the Spit or folks that live a long way out, gas would be too expensive if you don't do it all at one time," said Dolma. "Does it make the most sense for the city as a whole if you took all those people together? ... That really is the best scenario."

Dolma interpreted Wythe's objections as "against the stuff-it-down-your-throat," but added, "I believe in the integrity of everyone on the council. Whatever the council decides, (Wythe) will support and go with. She has a right to her opinion and so I don't have any problem with what she said."

Council member Bryan Zak agrees that Wythe's role as mayor will supersede per personal opinion if the council votes in favor of the special assessment district.

"She has a duty to represent the city of Homer and because we collectively support the gas line as a council, she has a duty to go ahead even though she's exempt form voting," said Zak.

With regard to the requirement that property owners submit written objections if they oppose the project, Zak said, "If you flip it 180 degrees and look at voter apathy, it's the other way when you have to vote in order to make something happen."

Zak said he view the citywide assessment district to distribute natural gas as "the best thing for the overall good."

Council member David Lewis was not surprised by Wythe's testimony, but said as mayor "she will respect and go along with the council's wishes."

He noted the many variables that had to be considered in putting together the HSAD proposal.

"I have a friend that has 11 lots of which a couple are parking lots which will probably never have a building on them, but he is being assessed. That's a chunk," said Lewis of the $3,283.30 per property assessment for a total of $36,111.30. "If everything perfect? No. We can just try to be as fair to the whole town as possible."

A second public hearing to discuss formation of the Natural Gas Homer Special Assessment District will be at the Jan. 28 city council meeting.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.

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