By Naomi Klouda
Each city council candidate promises to add a new voice on the Homer City Council in October, one that wants a leaner government and less of a hands-on approach to everything from zoning to grocery bags.
The Homer Chamber of Commerce hosted a debate Tuesday night for the three candidates and incumbent at Kachemak City Community Hall. It was moderated by KBBI News Director Aaron Selbig. Gus Van Dyke, Justin Arnold and Corbin Arno with Councilman Bryan Zak weighed in on five questions relating to economic development.
In their introduction, each spoke about the reasons that inspire their campaigns for office. Bryan Zak said he is the “discerning” vote on the council and often a lone voter. When people share ideas with him, he tries to communicate them with other council members.
“We are starting to see a shift in the views,” he said. He wants more of a partnership with community groups, helping nonprofits achieve their goals and better listening practices than what he tends to see on the current council.
Van Dyke, a 17-year resident and owner of Scruggs Auto Repair, said he’s running “basically because I think change has to be made in order to make Homer a better place for all of us to live.
“I’ve been known for colorful expressions to come out of my mouth at times. If I’m elected don’t be surprised to see that come out of me. I couldn’t care less about being politically correct,” he said.
Arnold said he’s lived in the Homer-Anchor Point area all his life and got involved because he felt disenfranchised by the political system.
“I originally came into it because of the plastic bag ban. I decided to google how to change a city ordinance,” Arnold said. “I couldn’t understand why we would ban a plastic bag when they are less environmentally unfriendly than paper bags.”
Along the petition-signature gathering route, Arnold said he heard a lot of different people speaking about how they felt. “That’s when I felt more inclined to believe there could be a change,” he said.
Arnold wants the city to “stop the ram rodding of laws” and functioning as “the nanny government” in which the council decides to punish, or praise the ones who do things the way they think it should be done.
“There needs to be a voice for the people but not a voice telling people what to do,” he said.
Arno, like Arnold, born and raised in Homer, said he is concerned with the way things are going.
“I know the value of a dollar and I don’t see our government spending our dollars with the same respect I do,” he said. “I’m running to be a voice for the people. I grew up here and I want to raise my kids in this same great town. I want to see it be the way it could be. We are ready for a change.”
The first question the four took up asked which sector of the economy would they encourage for growth and how might the city government spur that?
Van Dyke said the reason why Homer came to be a town is because people banded together on joint economic opportunities.
“They banded together and watched each other’s backs and developed financially as a group. That particular industry that brought them together is seafood and the sea,” Van Dyke said. “Without that bay, I’m not 100 percent certain Homer would be here.” He would encourage many sectors from commercial fisheries to sport charters to cruise ship tourism. “That’s the primary focus. Let’s get more in and let’s get ready for more.”
Arnold said it’s not the city council’s role to favor one sector over another. Certain laws passed by the council make it expensive to operate a business here, he said. He cited an experience of his grandparents, Kenny and Snooks Moore who own the Northern Enterprises Boat Yard. After a fire, it cost them three times what they were insured for to rebuild. “That’s because there are laws in the way. It’s important for government to get out of the way. Why are we involved in the first place?”
Arno advocated that it’s the private sector’s role to decide what the city needs. “If there is a demand for it, people will build it. I don’t think it’s the government’s responsibility “ to push economic development. “Private individuals will build it if we need it. When government dumps money into (a project), it might not produce. A private company wouldn’t do it.”
Zak said he would emphasize sectors that are already doing well. Fishing, tourism and technology do well in Homer and all businesses need encouragement. “It won’t be the city council alone doing that. It is changing a mentality. Right now they believe in supplying some parks – but in order to grow, we will need to invest in the city,” he said.
He lauded the City of Homer’s move to hire an economic development coordinator, Katie Koester, as a step in the right direction. “They get the sales tax from the borough back to the city. We need to put that money to work for the citizens,” he said. “Yes, they are saving budgeted money, but I’m concerned they are taking too much away.”
Cuts to the capital improvement list, as the council did this year to five items, ends up cutting partners and ends as a disservice to the community, he said. Some of the city’s tax revenue can be put back to work to encourage growth, he said.
Van Dyke’s response to the economic development role of city government was hands off. “The less government on businesses, the more businesses will be able to react. The more they invest, the better Homer will become,” he said.
Arnold advocated spending tax revenue to decrease costly burdens such as the city’s high water-sewer rates, the highest on the road system.
Zak agreed that there are laws on the books that need to be “straightened out.The council needs to listen to you all. I don’t think they do effective listening. There are ordinances on the books that probably could be straightened out.”
The next question asked for specific cases where the candidates believe city rules and regulations make it hard for businesses to operate.
Arnold cited the plastic grocery bag ban, which he said cost Safeway $40,000-50,000. This is money Safeway would have been able to spend on Christmas bonuses for its employees, he said. Costs came in the form of purchasing paper sacks and then needing a place to store them.
Another example is the zoning steep slope laws that don’t allow building in certain places. “That’s taking a part of property away – I would say that is stealing. If it can be done in a reasonable manner, then why not?”
The sign ordinance was another example. Businesses don’t want to interfere with the beauty of Homer, he said.
“The first goal if I get elected is to identify the worst (law) and get rid of it.”
Arno agreed that businesses aren’t putting up ugly or unsightly signs and there was little justification for changing the laws. He cited another issue as an example of intrusive laws: Green zones on properties that limit how much parking can be offered. Another law is that property owners must have sediment ponds if they do not have sloping property, for runoff. “If it’s not soaking into the ground, you have to build a sediment pond that turns into a mosquito breeding pond,” he said.
Zak gave a recent example in a zoning matter. Dennis Novak, a beloved councilman and contributor to many civic causes, had owned rental cabins on Baycrest Hill prior to his death. Now his sister is trying to sell the property, but zoning rules say since it was grandfathered in, the business side of the property’s use cannot continue. Blackwell is another one, a well drilling company owned by Don Blackwell, that isn’t allowed to operate at its location.
“We have two businesses that need to go back to the planning commission and if they can’t make a decision than we need to do it,” Zak said. “If a zoning code changes it should in no way impact a business that was already approved.”
Another example is the zoning requirement to pave the parking lots in the Gateway district along Homer’s entrance into town. Zak said that’s not conducive to good environmental stewardship and it puts an unnecessary expense on business. “We need more greenery,” he said.
Van Dyke said the more regulations that are imposed on businesses, the less earnings they can retain.
“The city needs to get out of the micomanaging phase and provide only those services that government was intended for and just get out of the rest of it,” he said. “If we get back to the basics, everything else will get into place. Reduce the size and scope of government and spur a public sector growth boom.”
The third question asked how the candidates feel about the way the city handled the natural gas distribution network.
Arnold said he felt it was uncalled for.
“They basically taxed us again. Every time you go to a (city council) meeting, somebody brings up taxes. The sales tax on food, and they say ‘if you want something we are going to have to tax you,’” Arnold said. “The gasline was shoved down our throats. The city overstepped its bounds. I don’t believe gas would have come here until the city council pushed it through without the citizen’s consent.”
Zak believes the process wasn’t fair to everybody. “It may not be fair to everybody, but it was in everybody’s best interest,” he said.
Van Dyke believes natural gas will be good for the economy and homeowners, but the manner in which it was brought about wasn’t right.
“I don’t know of any other government agency that has ever brought a utility into town and then give (the infrastructure) to that company,” he said, referring to Enstar as the owner of a pipeline built by public funds.
“There’s no perfect answer,” Arnold said. “I do believe it’s beneficial. When the forms came out, I abstained my opinion, so I was a ‘yes’ vote. It’s questionable whether that is legal to do that.”
He too questioned why the state and city government would spend $12 million to build the infrastructure for natural gas and then “give it to a company. Why didn’t we form an HEA like cooperative? Someone was in the back room – that’s what I think,” he said.
Arno also questioned the cost to individual homeowners, who must now buy all new appliances in order to access the gas.
The fourth question asked how would they view a big box store moving to Homer.
Zak said he’s not in favor of big box stores because they push out local businesses.
Van Dyke said he would hate to see that happen. But what comes into town can’t be controlled by government.
“I would have to do some soul searching to figure out whether I want one to come into town. It would have a detrimental effect on this community.”
Arnold pointed out that Homer shoppers already have a “big box” store.
“Internet shopping is a box store: Amazon.com It’s cheaper than buying in Anchorage. That’s where I can buy cheaper and they put it at my door. But you lose sales tax when you buy on the Internet. On the other hand, if businesses don’t evolve they die out like the dinosaurs. Look at Kodak – (cameras and film) went through huge advancements, and Kodak didn’t evolve fast enough. They thought digital wasn’t going to work, that it’s not the wave of the future,” he said.
Arno said he needed to start his own business (Arno Construction) in order to have a job in Homer.
He isn’t opposed to a box store. “It’s not the government’s responsibility or duty to say they cannot come here. You can spend the money where you want. It’s your right, it’s your choice, it’s your dollar.”
Van Dyke said shopping local is taking care of one another. “You’ve gotta have each other’s backs. We can make this town a lot better place to live in and make it so we don’t feel the need for that kind of competition. We have everything we need here already,” he said.
The last question dealt with Homer’s four new public restrooms, which cost in total $1.2 million to build and was paid for with cruise ship taxes. The No. 1 complaint from the cruise ship passengers is that Homer doesn’t have enough.
Van Dyke said he would have taken that money built a string of bathrooms. “We could have done 20 or 30 bathrooms for what they paid for four of them,” he said.
If businesses would let people use their facilities, it might mean more commerce for them, he said.
Arnold said when he was growing up, his grandmother would buy a candy bar or something at the Anchor Point Inn when he had to use the bathroom there. He was told that the reason the bathrooms costed so much is because the city is required to pay Davis Bacon wages of $42 an hour.
“But there is no excuse for it to cost that much. They need to back off spending someone else’s money like it doesn’t matter. We need to look into these why cost so much.”
Arno said there are enough businesses in town that will allow the public to use their restrooms. “To spend a $1 million on four bathrooms that would fit in my house easily – that’s craziness. Give local businesses some business. Set up blue cans if that’s what’s needed.”
Zak said he was the lone disentor when the matter came up for a vote. Homer only had one cruise ship stop this summer. “Now we don’t need the bathrooms. I was frustrated twice that night (at city council), on the bathrooms and the water sewer rates.”
Let’s hope they look good when they are finished, he added. It miffed him and a lot of others when one of the johns was put up in the Peace Park donated to the city by Brother Asaiah, a kind and beloved man who settled here in the late 1950s.
Arno said the attitude is that if it’s free money, let’s spend it. “We spent it and now we have to maintain it. People in government don’t think about the money. They don’t think about the maintenance costs.”
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