Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:11 PM on Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Council supports task force to look at water-sewer fees

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

The Homer City Council at its Tuesday night meeting heeded the advice of City Manager Walt Wrede when he recommended it not take action on two resolutions and an ordinance that would have changed the contentious water and sewer rates passed last December.

However, the council did adopt a suggestion made by former council member Kevin Hogan before he resigned at the last meeting, and created a citizen and council-member Water and Sewer Rate Task Force.

"I would urge the council not to overreact and jump into new fee changes that are not fully researched and adequately vetted by the public," Wrede wrote in his manager's report.

At its meeting held a day later than usual because of the Seward's Day holiday, the council did just that. In a 1-4 vote against, with only council member Bryan Zak voting yes, the council defeated on first reading an ordinance introduced by Mayor James Hornaday that would have funded a roll back on a new $45 per-unit service charge on apartments that one apartment owner said raised his water bills 40 percent.

To absorb the loss, Hornaday proposed taking $86,000 out of the general fund. Hornaday also introduced a resolution changing the fee schedule back to a per-building $45 service charge.

"I am ready to bite the bullet and start subsidizing water and sewer from the general fund," Hornaday said.

In his eight years as mayor, Hornaday said citizens have complained about the new per-unit service charge more than any other issue. Low-income residents and seniors have expressed concern about higher utility costs, he said.

"'We cannot afford this. We cannot continue this — it's been a very difficult winter,'" Hornaday said people have been telling him. "My phone has been ringing. Everywhere I go, I hear about this."

Not only did Hornaday's ordinance fail, but his resolution died for lack of a second. Another resolution introduced by council member David Lewis that would have gone back to the per-building service charge also died for lack of a second. Lewis had proposed funding the loss in service charge revenues by increasing the service charge for all customers by $13.

Several apartment owners testified in favor of going back to a per-account customer charge. No one protested a rate change that also reduced apartment owners' water and sewer charges by moving them from commercial rates to residential rates.

"Our sewer-water rate plan is like a wooden boat with a leak. It may even have some rot," said Larry Slone, an apartment building owner. Previous attempts to fix it have been like slapping on paint, he said. "What we need to do is strip off these old layers and get back to rebuilding. The way to do that is with the sewer water task force that has been proposed."

Another apartment owner, Dave Mastolier, who owns several four-plexes with his wife Bonnie, spoke against Wrede's suggestion to give the new fee schedules time. Mastolier said even after his bills were corrected from an error that charged the commercial rate, his calculation showed a 40-percent increase in his bills.

"I think it's easy to say 'give it time' when it's coming out of someone else's pocket," he said.

Keren Kelley, executive director of Homer Senior Citizens Inc., Homer Seniors board of directors president Ernest Suoja, and board member Jim Clymer all spoke against the new rates and the effect on Homer Senior Citizens Inc. and seniors renting apartments in independent living and assisted living facilities. With 45 independent units and 27 assisted living units, the new rates would cost Homer Senior Citizens $3,240 monthly in service charges — a rate increase the nonprofit would absorb in its own budget and not pass on to seniors.

Wrede visited the Senior Center on Monday for lunch and spoke with Kelley. In his manager's report, he said assisted living units could be treated like hospital rooms where medical care is provided and the per-unit service charge could be dropped.

In speaking against Hornaday's ordinance, council member and Mayor Pro Tempore Beth Wythe said she felt it wrong to fund the water and sewer fund from the general fund. Residents and visitors already fund water and sewer through a sales tax, Wythe noted. Some of them also are people on low incomes.

"They are contributing to this through the general fund," she said. "I am not where you are with the fact that the city as a whole should subsidize this utility that only serves select members of the community."

The council did support the mayor's resolution for a task force. Council member Barbara Howard, a former city clerk, made several technical amendments to the language of the resolution. Council member Francie Roberts made an amendment that the council accepted to extend the task force's deadline to June 2013. That would give members more time to research and understand the complicated sewer and water fee system, Roberts argued. A summer 2013 deadline also would fit in the two-year fee review schedule the council had previously adopted.

The new task force would consist of five public members and two council members, to be appointed by Mayor Hornaday with approval by the council. Citizens interested in applying for the task force can submit names to City Clerk Jo Johnson by calling her at 235-3130. The application deadline is April 3, with the council considering appointments at its April 9 meeting.

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