Homer Alaska - Elections

Story last updated at 5:49 PM on Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Borough assembly, city council candidates talk issues

By Michael Armstrong
Staff Writer

In one of the last public forums before next Tuesday's muncipal elections, candidates for Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and Homer City Council discussed some of the issues. Sponsored by the Homer Chamber of Commerce and moderated by KBBI Public Radio News Director Aaron Selbig, about 20 people listened at the noon luncheon meeting held Sept. 21 at Wasabi's Restaurant.

All three candidates for Assembly District 8 attended: Kelly Cooper, Bill Smith and Bryan Zak. Council candidates, and current members Barbara Howard and David Lewis also appeared. Candidate and former council member Mike Heimbuch had been invited, but was unable to attend.

Each candidate had three minutes to respond to describe themselves and answer questions.

"This must be what speed dating feels like," Cooper said.

As with the borough mayoral candidates who spoke two weeks ago, the assembly candidates were asked if they thought the borough had a role in getting a natural gas line from Anchor Point to Homer. Unsurprisingly, they all said yes.

"The number one cost of doing business is the cost of utilities," Cooper said. "As we come to the end of the economic recovery, we have to advocate for cheaper energy."

Smith, the incumbent, said when the capital request to the Alaska Legislature came up, he advocated for it by doing some research on how much money would be saved if public buildings like South Peninsula Hospital and schools converted to natural gas.

"I focused on the taxpayer solutions because I thought that would be the one that would have the most appeal to the Legislature," Smith said.

Zak said natural gas shouldn't be the only new energy source considered. He mentioned new research being done in such things as tidal power.

"There are alternative energies that still need to be considered," Zak said.

For the council candidates, Selbig asked if they supported going back to a year-round sales tax on nonprepared foods. Howard said no, but also acknowledged the financial hit the city of Homer took with the winter holiday on food sales taxes.

"I have to respect what the citizens said," Howard said.

Lewis said "yes," but pointed out "nonprepared foods" is the wrong title. The tax holiday exempts sugary sodas and candy, too, but that's because it applies to food stamp items, a convenient way for stores to sort out taxable food. Lewis said he'd favor a true exemption on taxing food if it was "bread and meat." He favored changing the law so sodas and candy were taxed.

All the candidates answered a question Selbig asked on what they thought the current state was of the Homer economy.

Zak said he thought Homer was in good shape and better than most other places in the United States.

"We have the natural resources," he said. "We have protected the fish, the renewable resources. That's something that will never go away."

With the possibility that guided sport caught halibut could go to a one fish a day limit if the Catch Sharing Plan goes into effect, Zak said Homer has to think about "rebranding" itself.

Smith said based on borough sales tax receipts, Homer is on the rebound, with taxable sales up from 2009 and 2010.

"We're not in the galloping forward stage, but we're holding pretty good," Smith said.

Cooper said the state of the economy depends on who you talk to.

"Some say it's OK," she said. "I think for young folks they'd scream 'Absolutely not!' if you ask them."

Howard said she agreed with Cooper.

"In essential businesses, they're probably doing OK," she said. "In businesses such as mine (Curves, an exercise club) with discretionary funds, we're not doing OK."

Lewis said he felt Homer had some other positive points in its economy.

"Homer has a lot to offer with the college, with the schools," he said. "With the more families we can bring in, I think the businesses will follow and we can grow as a city."

Lewis elaborated on that issue when the council candidates were asked what should be done with the old Homer Intermediate School. The Homer Boys & Girls Club has announced it can't afford to stay in its spot in the school past December, when city offices using the old Kachemak Bay Campus side move back to Homer City Hall after construction and remodeling is done. The city is now paying for utilities.

If the club closes, working families will lose a place for kids to go after school, Lewis said. He knew of a family of four with a single parent who had to leave town because they couldn't find affordable day care.

"It's up to everyone who has kids there and employers who have workers who have kids there to make sure it stays open," Lewis said.

Howard called the city purchase of the old school "The worst dollar we ever spent."

"I have no solution as to what to do with it," she added.

The borough candidates also weighed in on the closing of the Boys & Girls Club.

Smith said the club needs to change the rates it charges parents, saying parents still pay $20 a year to have their children there.

"I've been disappointed the Boys & Girls Club hasn't done their part to offset more of the cost for paying for it," he said.

Kelly Jackman, unit director of the Homer Boys & Girls Club, later said the club in January raised its membership dues to $70 a year.

A former volunteer at the club, Cooper called it "near and dear to my heart."

"This is the perfect example of us working together," Cooper said of how to keep the club going. "Let's get the right people in the room and make solutions. We have to get to the right point and fix it."

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