• Council reinstates funding to nonprofits, museum and much more
By Carey Restino
After dramatically cutting funding for area nonprofits at its last meeting, the Homer City Council Monday night flip-flopped, funding not only the Pratt Museum and the Homer Foundation at their originally budgeted levels, but also adding money for library staff, advertising of Homer’s marine trades and services, design work on a parking lot on the Homer Spit, and even a citizen’s academy.
Following the meeting, Mayor Beth Wythe said she didn’t know going into the meeting how things were going to go. One councilmember, Beauregard Burgess, was absent, changing the council balance. At last week’s meeting, councilwoman Barbara Howard proposed a budget amendment cutting contributions to the Homer Foundation and the Pratt Museum totaling $39,000, and funding Emergency Medical Technician and public dispatch positions instead. Councilmen David Lewis and Brian Zak, along with councilwoman Francie Roberts, voted against the amendment. Councilmen Gus Van Dyke, Burgess and Howard voted in favor. Wythe broke the tie, voting in favor.
The move came as a complete surprise to many area nonprofits, whose supporters said depend on city funding to help leverage money from other entities.On the chopping block were the Pratt Museum, which received $20,000 in the previous edition of the budget, and a $19,000 funding allocation to the Homer Foundation, which in turn receives applications for and funds a variety of programs in the city annually, such as the Homer Council on the Arts, the Homer Community Food Pantry and the Kachemak Nordic Ski Club.
But while nonprofits might have been caught off guard by last meeting’s cuts, supporters turned up in droves to tell the council their mind, packing the council chambers and sharing passionate testimony in favor of the programs the council has historically supported. Also present were those who testified that the council needed to do more belt-tightening, citing escalating costs throughout the city.
Larry Slone testified that the council was supporting programs that not all of its citizens used or were in favor of. Slone said that city residents have made it very evident that they don’t want to pay more money in taxes, especially to support programs that he claimed are beneficial to only a very small segment of the city.
“I don’t think I benefit whatsoever — I don’t participate in any of these nonprofits that the city funds,” Slone said, asking why more specific numbers are never used to explain the value the nonprofits bring to the city. “I’m not satisfied that it’s financially beneficial to the city and all the community at large.”
Ken Landfield, however, advocated for the programs, saying the arts and culture programs are part of what make the town what it is.
“Arts and culture of Homer are not frills but integral parts of our community,” said Landfield, a longtime Pier One supporter. “There is more to Homer than the view and the fish. We are known as a center of arts and culture. It puts us on the map.”
Others, however, spoke to what they saw as excessive spending by the city council and said costs have skyrocketed out of control. Some suggested the city look at outsourcing some of its services, such as road maintenance, while others said the benefits to city employees, including personal leave, were excessive. Paul Heuper testified that implementing a sales tax or a bead tax would just end up hurting businesses locally as many people would drive up the road to Soldotna or Anchorage to buy their food and supplies instead.
Former councilman Kevin Hogan compared the Homer City budget to that of Soldotna, noting that Soldotna has 66 full time employees, compared to Homer’s 113.
“We have a management problem,” Hogan said. “We have a spending problem.”
Even former mayor Jim Hornaday turned up to speak, joking with council that he was continuing with his “political recovery program” but felt compelled to appear before the body to advocate for returning funding to nonprofits. Hornaday responded to council’s request at the last meeting for direction on how to fund all the programs people seem to want saying the city should consider putting the full sales tax back in place year-round. He also encouraged the council to look at the health care exchanges as a possible solution to the city’s ever-growing health care cost issue, noting that Anchorage was moving in that direction.
Homer resident Rika Mouw spoke in support of nonprofit funding, saying the cuts would be ill-advised.
“It pains me deeply to be here rehashing the old days when nonprofits came to council for support,” Mouw said, speaking to the fact that nonprofit funding has largely been turned over to the Homer Foundation, which distributes a lump sum throughout the community through an application process. The council used to hear from numerous nonprofits each year during its budget cycle, all competing for funding. “I think it would be foolhardy to cut this very small sliver of the city budget to think it will save you money. They provide services that make this community much stronger and more livable.”
Mouw and others brought up the idea of a bed tax, a concept that met with resistance from those in the hospitality industry, who see the fact that Homer doesn’t have a bed tax while other communities in Southcentral Alaska do as a competitive advantage. Mouw and others, however, said they expect to pay a bed tax when they travel, and don’t think paying one would dissuade visitors from coming to town.
Recreation study, chamber funding remain
Supporters of the funding for a recreational needs study, which was added to the budget at the last meeting, turned up again to show their strong support for the initiative. Deb Cox, who was involved with the Karen Hornaday Park improvements, said the energy of those involved in the push to improve recreational offerings on the Southern Kenai Peninsula was strong and should be supported.
“Clearly this group of people takes it a lot farther …. ,” Cox said, adding that she is happy to pay taxes to support the effort, as well as funding for area nonprofits.
Others expressed frustration with finding space and time in the few recreational spaces in schools since the Homer Boys and Girls Club location was mothballed by the city. One speaker noted that a new recreational adult volleyball league could only get two hours a week to play in the current tight schedule of community users. Another speaker said the Special Olympics athletes face a difficult time finding venues in which to practice. The recreational needs study was funded to the tune of $35,000 at the last meeting, an allocation that survived the final revision.
Also remaining in the budget was a $10,000 increase to funding for the Homer Chamber of Commerce, which promotes the community through advertising campaigns. The council upped the chamber’s allocation at its last meeting, saying the community saw returns on that investment through increased tourism.
Chamber director Jim Lavrakas told the council Monday that the organization will use the funds not only to attract visitors but also to put together a promotion package for those considering moving to Homer.
Also remaining in the budget were funds allocated at the last meeting to fund two seasonal emergency medical technicians as well as a public safety dispatch position at the police department.
Port and harbor given promotion funds
In addition to that allocation, the city council added another $10,000 into the budget to promote the city’s port and harbor facilities. Howard brought the item forward, saying the funds would help the city advertise the “big-dollar services” the harbor is currently providing.
Buccaneer, which brought a jack-up rig to the Homer harbor last winter for repairs, was present at the council meeting and spokesperson Christina Anderson told the council the company was looking forward to another busy season in the months ahead. The drill rig is currently being serviced off Port Graham, but Buccaneer didn’t rule out bringing the rig to port if needed.
The council passed a resolution expressing its position and policy that oil and gas drilling rigs and support vessels operated by Buccaneer Energy or other companies are welcome and encouraged to use the city’s port and harbor facilities.
Robert Archibald, who works on escort vessels in Prince William Sound as a chief engineer warned the council, however, that if it was encouraging jack-up rigs and other vessels and equipment to come to the Homer dock, it should also budget in extra funding for staff to keep an eye on those entities.
“If you are going to welcome in jack up rigs and oil supply vessels, it’s going to put a new burden upon the harbormaster,” Archibald said. “I’ve been in this business a long time and a collection of oil boats and jack up rigs present a problem. There’s a lot of entities that go into making these people do what they are supposed to do and do it right, but as we all know, the failure of human beings is sometimes out there. I hope you look at this invitation with a little light that also, you are going to have to step up how you are going to demand performance from these people.”
Wythe commented at the end of the meeting, however, that the city needs to be open for business and the arts and recreation opportunities in Homer are not the only things that support the community.
“We have to not shirk every single opportunity that will generate commerce in our community,” Wythe said. “We have to be able to say having a jack up rig at the dock is not the end of the world. They spent a ton of money in the community of Homer last year.”
Library surprised by last-minute staffing increase
Library director Ann Dixon was almost speechless at last night’s council meeting when a motion by councilman Zak adding $18,000 to the budget to increase the children’s librarian position from halftime to fulltime was approved with almost no debate.
While many citizens testified before the council in recent weeks about the need to increase funding for the position, the council did not take up the issue significantly during its budget conversations. Advocates said the children’s library was used by an increasing number of youth, especially during story hour, which is often attended by as many as 50 children, and after school, when the room floods with youth.
“The need has been there for such a long time,” Dixon said. “I’m thrilled.”
Dixon said the increased funding will allow the children’s librarian to add another story time to the schedule as well as staff the children’s library during after-school hours, possibly even setting up a portable check-out station in the children’s library during peak times.
Also speedily approved by the council was $15,000 toward an expanded parking area on the Homer Spit near the Seafarer’s Memorial, as well as a $4,000 citizens academy budget request, something Howard has long been promoting.
Howard said the citizens academy would allow about 20 community members to be educated on how the town works covering everything from city operations to how police and fire responses work.
Several of the items added to the budget Monday night were paid for by reducing the city’s legal fund budget, which city finance director John Li said was funded using an average of several years’ expenditures. City attorney Thomas Klinker said while it was hard to predict future expenses, the city had wrapped up several suits recently that had caused expenses in 2013 to be above average.
Additional funds for additions came from the city’s general fund.
Longtime elected official Milli Martin stayed to the end of the council meeting in order to offer her thanks to the council for its effort and responsiveness.
“You listened to the people and we appreciate that,” Martin said.
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