Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 3:34 PM on Wednesday, March 14, 2012

No rollback on water-sewer rates

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

During public comments at Monday night's Homer City Council meeting, testimony brought a mixed bag. On the one hand Little League baseball players and family spoke in favor of a resolution approving a $305,000 budget for Karen Hornaday Park improvements that would fix swampy ball fields, rickety bleachers and rustic dugouts, and make other improvements.

That resolution passed without any controversy.

For every ball cap in the audience there seemed to be a green visor — symbolically, anyway — as landlords and apartment owners did the accounting for increased sewer and water bills. Most of them supported a resolution by council member Kevin Hogan to roll back a $45 per-unit service charge that went into effect last month. Previously, the charge applied to each building or water meter, whether a duplex or a 16-unit apartment.

Hogan's resolution didn't pass — and was hugely controversial, with Hogan announcing at the end of the meeting that he was resigning his seat and intended to sue the city. He refused comment on the nature of the lawsuit until he talked to his lawyer (see related story, at homernews.com).

"I really, really think the city council needs to adopt this resolution and look for other ways to fund this added expense," said Walt Suomela, an apartment building owner.

Perhaps inspiring spirited testimony was an error admitted by Homer Finance Director Regina Mauras. She said that when February's bills went out, a software error incorrectly charged apartment owners the commercial water rate of $11.40 per 1,000 gallons and not $4.42 per 1,000 gallons. Some buildings also got charged for the incorrect number of units. New bills were issued on Tuesday.

"I do apologize to everybody who got a multifamily bill," Mauras said at the committee of the whole meeting.

In addition to the rate change, Hogan also protested the process by how it came about. An original ordinance, 11-49, included a monthly $45 per-unit charge of $20 for sewer and $25 for water as well as a requirement that each apartment install a water meter. When the city realized requiring meters would be a financial burden on the city and apartment owners, the council introduced a substitute ordinance keeping the $45 per-unit charge but dropping the meter requirement.

Hogan said the public didn't have adequate public notice of the substitute ordinance. Prior versions did have public hearings. City attorney Tom Klinkner told the council the ordinance process was legal.

As part of the change in fee schedules, the ordinance also moved apartments from the commercial rate to the residential rate. That dropped the water rate from $11.40 per 1,000 gallons to $4.42 and the sewer rate from $12.64 per 1,000 gallons to $9.97, a change that saw some apartments with decreased bills (see analysis, page X).

That decrease didn't pass unnoticed by one triplex owner, Larry Slone.

"The purpose as I understand it was to pay for the ongoing maintenance of the sewer and water enterprise fund," Slone said, a point also made by Homer City Manager Walt Wrede in his report.

Slone said his calculation showed an increase for him of from $175 a month for three units to $210 month, based on 5,000 gallons of usage.

"I'm willing to pay my fair share, and I am," Slone said.

Nine people testified in favor of Hogan's resolution and against the new service charges. Keren Kelly, executive director of Homer Senior Citizens Inc., which owns 65 units for seniors age 55 and older, said it would have to absorb about $3,000 a month in increased service charges. Twenty of those units are assisted living apartments.

"These are the pioneers of our community who are living in senior citizen units," Kelly said. "I'd hate to impose any more costs on them."

Mauras said some assisted living apartments where residents receive extra care would be counted the same as hospital rooms and not pay the $45 per unit fee.

Mayor James Hornaday also noted the burden on seniors and low-income renters.

"I'm told with these increases they can no longer stay in these rental units," he said at the committee of the whole meeting. "That is concerning me, also."

On the other hand, Hornaday also said that if passed, Hogan's resolution would have meant a $172,000 deficit.

"We can't do that," he said.

In discussing the resolution, Council member David Lewis said he felt charging apartment owners a per-unit service charge was fair — something he said homeowners told him.

"They feel they are subsidizing the apartments," Lewis said. "A lot of them were shocked they were paying the fee and a multiuse place wasn't."

"The bottom line is, as Walt said, we have a very expensive sewer and water system," council member Beth Wythe said, referring to City Manager Walt Wrede's council report. "Until we get some infilling, the rates are not going to be any better."

On a vote of 2 yes, 3 no, the resolution failed, with Hogan and council member Bryan Zak voting in favor and Wythe, Lewis and council member Barbara Howard against. Council member Francie Roberts had an excused absence.

Hogan urged the council to keep working on the sewer and water rate fees.

"Put the shoulder to the wheel and come up with a workable solution everyone is able to live with," he said.

Hogan also suggested the council form a citizen task force or an advisory commission to look at the rates.

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