By Mike Heimbuch
Three years ago, 60 percent of Homer voters voted against a winter time sales tax increase on groceries. The whole idea was that the working poor would have one place to spend their money where the city government didn’t have their hand out.
Prior to that ballot question, in the fall of 2009, the city attorney was asked his opinion about the legality of the city council ending the food tax exemption “even if the public voted to keep it.” In his written letter to the council he said that according to the superior court of Alaska – it’s not certain whether or not it would be legal. That has not deterred some council members from trying – and it should.
Here’s what the court decision actually says: “… we concluded that ‘when a local government grants an exemption by ordinance and the exemption is ‘not’ subjected to a public vote, it may repeal that exemption by ordinance without a public vote. The negative implication of this statement may be that when exemptions are approved by public vote they may not be repealed by a mere ordinance.” The court’s last words on the subject further stated that a decision on this issue could not be made until a borough (or council) government actually tried to take away a sales tax exemption once the voters ratified it. This is exactly the situation the City of Homer finds itself in right now.
According to state law it is fairly clear that if the sales tax exemption had never gone to a public vote, the council who granted the exemption could have just as easily taken it away. That’s not what happened. We didn’t just have an advisory vote on whether or not to ‘keep the exemption’ – We actually voted on specific language of whether or not to raise the food tax to 3 percent – and it’s a very important distinction.
It’s all the more distressing because council members pushing this consider themselves enlightened progressive people. There is nothing progressive at all about raising sales tax rates on groceries. There’s not a damn thing in that city budget more important than a poor person’s food budget.
The question all of us should be asking is why aren’t they letting us vote on it? One council member told me the public didn’t need to vote on it because he was elected to make the hard choices. I’d say going against what 60 percent of the people voted for is not only a ‘hard’ choice – but a stupid one as well. I am certain that if the winter food sales tax is reinstated – that very shortly afterward there will be a public initiative and enough signatures gathered to put this issue on the ballot next fall.
The reality is that government generally spends every single dollar it can get. And when they do, all the department heads want more. Then, once a year, the administrator and finance people come to the council with a new budget, a somber look on their faces, and in an apologetic tone of voice they ask for a little more. The next time some well-meaning individual tells you that another $30 or $40 a month out of your family food budget is really no big deal, you should ask them how they know.
The slogan on the side of city vehicles reads: “The city that works.” Perhaps we should change that to “The city that can’t say no.” We need to elect councilmen who understand that’s exactly what their job is sometimes. It is our job to tell them how much we are willing to be taxed. We deserve that vote and we will have it – one way or another.
Mike Heimbuch is a former Homer City Council member who was an original proponent on the city council to push for the food tax exemption
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