By Carey Restino
The Homer City Council heard the first wave of pleas regarding its proposed budget , but council members expressed frustration at those who asked for items to be funded by the city without explaining where those funds would come from.
Residents testified in favor of an expanded position at the library for more children’s services as well as increased funding for the Homer Chamber of Commerce for promoting the town to visitors. The Homer Council on the Arts, one of many nonprofits to be funded by the city through the Homer Foundation, testified in favor of continued funding.
Former preschool educator Lisa Asselin told the council the library’s children’s programs were a huge asset to the community, and spoke in favor of increasing the staffing for those programs. She said that the children’s programs are so popular that the crowds of attendees may start to be too much for some participants.
When asked by Homer City Council Mayor Beth Wythe if she would support putting a year-round tax on groceries back in place to raise funds for such a position, Asselin said absolutely.
The council also heard from Homer Chamber of Commerce Director Jim Lavrakas, who testified that the Homer Chamber would like to see an increase in funding for promotion of the community from $41,000 to $50,000. Lavrakas said the chamber is unique in that it does not receive funding support for maintaining its visitor center from the city. He said he is moving away from promotion of chamber events in the local newspapers and toward more online advertising as well advertising in organizations such as Alaska Magazine.
“I promise to scrutinize all marketing dollars going out of the chamber doors,” he said, noting that the chamber is considering such innovative ideas as having a presence on 4th Avenue in Anchorage.
This year’s city budget proposed by the city manager in general holds the line, helped by a slight boost in sales tax revenue.
“On the expenditure side, this can basically be described as a ‘status quo’ or ‘treading water’ budget,” wrote city staff in its preamble to the budget as proposed. “The budget is ‘balanced’ in the sense that expenditures do not exceed revenues.”
But trouble lies in the ever-expanding cost of health care coverage for the city employees. If the city had offered the same health plan it offered in previous years to its staff, it would have cost more than $2,000 per person per month. Instead, the city slimmed down its health plan, covering an estimated $1,500 per person. As a peace offering for this diminishment in coverage, a 2 percent cost of living increase is budgeted in for all employees, something they have not received for five years.
Wythe said in the council meeting that she had concerns about being able to attract qualified employees to the city given the limited resources it had to provide compensation with.
Councilman Beau Burgess noted that the proposed budget is a “substantial hit” for city staff.
“It is not a perfect scenario,” he said.
Burgess noted that while tax revenues came in higher than expected, that does not mean that the city has excess funds. He noted that the city has been taking money out of its reserves to balance the budget for years now.
“We’ve been running down all our rainy day funds,” he said. “Right now we are burning money.î”
Councilman David Lewis told the audience that he would love to see many of the projects that the community is promoting – soccer fields, the hockey rink funded, new librarian positions.
“But we just don’t have the money,” he said. “Unless we find the money somewhere else, we won’t be doing that. When you come up here and ask us for something, please give us an idea where to get the money from.”
In other news, the city council
• Introduced an ordinance extending the amount of time a property can be allowed to discontinue a nonconforming use before losing its grandfather rights to operate that use from 12 months to 24 months, referring the ordinance to the planning commission for review. Councilman Bryan Zak originally suggested three years as an appropriate extension time, but the council amended it to two years.
• Reappointed Francie Roberts as mayor pro tempore.
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