By Carey Restino
After more than a year of meetings, hours of testimony and a considerable amount of disagreement, the Homer City Council passed a new rate structure for its water and sewer fees that it says make the costs far more equitable among different user groups.
With the new fee structure, more than half of customers, 57 percent, will see a decrease in their costs. But the largest water and sewer users in the community — which include businesses like Land’s End Resort — will see significant increases in their water and sewer bills, increases many in the business community said would be detrimental to their ability to do business here. Many from the business community turned out en force for the past several meetings, calling the council’s actions unfriendly to business and asking the council to throw out its plan or take actions such as using windfall monies from property tax assessed against a drill rig that spent the winter in Homer to offset the expense for all users.
But the council, which had spent months on the new rate schedule, stuck to its plan and approved the rate structure Monday night, with Councilman Bryan Zak as the lone voice of opposition. Zak asked that the council should consider amending the water and sewer rate proposal in line with suggestions made by the recently-formed Homer Voice for Business, a group formed in part to oppose the city’s water and sewer rate changes.
The group suggested the council create a new standing commission comprised of business community members to review the city’s budget on an ongoing basis and identify opportunities to cut costs. During the committee of the whole, several council members took exception to that suggestion, saying it sounded like the group wanted to tell the council how to vote. Others suggested those interested in being involved with city business take seats on the already existing commissions and boards, or file for a city council seat.
Zak asked the council to consider the rest of the proposed changes to the water and sewer rates, many of which failed for lack of a second.
A heated exchange between Councilman David Lewis and Mike Dye brought up an advertisement paid for by Homer Voice for Business, which compared water and sewer rates in other cities in Alaska with Homer’s rates. The advertisement stated it was comparing water rates, but Lewis noted that it was both water and sewer rates and that was not stated.
Others, however, noted that there were issues with the city’s water and sewer system that needed to be fixed, including the city’s need to flush water through the lines to keep it from being “stale,” as well as leaks in the water system and overhead costs, which many have said were too high. The council noted that the city’s water system was much more complicated than that of other areas in the state, such as Soldotna, requiring significantly more treatment and infrastructure.
City Manager Walt Wrede said he was committed to detailing the costs for the city’s water and sewer system.
“Even though I think much of that discussion comes from people who need to educate themselves more, I think it’s a good conversation to have,” Wrede said. “I’m committed this year to looking at each budget line item and to justify it.”
The council also changed how often it would look at water and sewer rates. It currently takes the rates into consideration every two years, but will now examine them every year.
After some last-minute tweaking and figures from the city’s financial department, the new rates passed with Zak as the lone voice of opposition.
But Adrienne Sweeney, owner of the Driftwood Inn, said the city still had work to do.
“It just constantly amazes me that the city can assess these kinds of fees on families and still not have the funds to hook up new customers,” she said. “We still have people right in the city who don’t have water and sewer. The city needs to fix the leaks, stop the waste, cut the costs, maintain what we’ve got and hook up more customers at an affordable rate. Setting up a commission is a way we can do that and I hope we can do that.”
Ken Castner, who sat on the work group that created the original water and sewer rate structure adjustment, defended the plan, saying the work group changed the plan in response to comments from businesses before it ever came to the council.
“We did make an honest effort to take everyone’s views into consideration and in the end, we had come up with something fair and easily transparent,” he said. “Everyone can look at that thing and see who’s paying what and why.”
The new rate structure starts on Jan. 1.
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