By Hannah Heimbuch
The Homer City Council voted 3-2 to send the food sales tax exemption back to voters on Monday evening, but failed to muster the four votes necessary to pass it.
The ordinance would have asked Homer voters whether or not they would like to reinstate the 4.5 percent city sales tax on nonprepared foods from September to May and — in addition — earmark .25 percent of city sales tax for the Parks and Recreation Department.
Many Homer residents stepped up to speak to the issue, which has been put to voters several times before. On past ballots, Homer voters have elected overwhelmingly to keep the exemption in place, and many who appeared at the meeting believed that decision should stand without another vote.
Those opposed included ReCreate Rec Organizer Kate Crowley.
The ordinance was discussed at length at a recent ReCreate Rec meeting, she said. And while they appreciated the council’s efforts to try to solve the funding issue, they did not support the ordinance.
“The consensus was that this was not the right solution for the rec community in and around Homer,” Crowley said. “Reinstating the food tax is not it. The voters have spoken on this issue three times and we feel that attaching our efforts to this ordinance would be a mistake.”
The group discussed two alternative funding proposals, she said, and would prefer to pursue those alternatives rather than hook their wagon to a sales tax on food. And ultimately, the tax and the recreation funding should be treated and presented to the public as two separate issues, she said.
“If you need to reinstate the food tax, please do it on your own,” Crowley said. “Do not involve the dedication of funds for a parks and rec department.”
Stephen Hooker described some of his experiences working at the food bank, saying there’s no way he can look at the families struggling to keep food on the table, and then vote for a tax that would make it even harder. Regardless of the good things the city wants to fund, he said, those wants do not justify putting further hardship on basic needs.
“People who have three or four kids, it’s hard enough now without the food tax,” Hooker said. “Anytime you have to justify taking away someone’s need, look in your heart and your conscience, because it’s telling you something.”
Larry Sloane provided similar testimony, speaking in opposition to both the ordinance and the idea of reinstatement.
“There’s something fundamentally flawed on this philosophy of taxing people on their primary needs, and turning around and giving it to other people in this town for their secondary needs,” Sloane said.
Several members of the community spoke in favor of the ordinance, saying they would support it if it went to a vote. Especially if an all-year sales tax on food meant helping to pay for improved community services and facilities.
“I support this,” said Bumpo Bremicker. “Government, what it’s about really, is all of us getting together and doing things we can’t do individually; one of the things we have to do is pay for it.”
He added, however, that he agreed with Crowley, that the issues of sales tax reinstatement and earmarking funds for parks and rec were likely two separate issues.
Andy Haas of Friends of the Homer Public Library also spoke in favor of the ordinance, pointing out that, while he would rather see an opportunity to generate funds that did not tax food purchases, he believed this was the best option in front of a council under serious financial pressure.
Councilman Beau Burgess, who introduced the ordinance, said that while raising tax on food is one of the last things he wants to do, the city is running short of ways to fund programs and infrastructure that the public is asking for.
“The reason I put this forward was because this is the best consensus I’ve gotten from listening to constituents thus far,” Burgess said. “There’s a complex series of issues that have to be decided here, and this is simply one alternative. I certainly hope we have the courage to put it before the voters.”
Mayor Beth Wythe noted that the food tax exemption remains in place now solely because the council is choosing to honor public opinion on the matter. The ultimate decision regarding the tax, however, is up to the council.
“I recognize and appreciate wholly that the community has voted on this two or three times,” Wythe said. “And I believe everybody at the council table knows that. On the strength of that is the only reason this community does not collect sales tax on food from September to May.”
The legal ability to remove or impose the tax lies solely with the council, she said, reflected in Councilman David Lewis’ proposal at January’s first council meeting, which aimed to reinstate the tax by council action alone. That effort, however, did not pass.
A reinstated winter sales tax on food would raise approximately $800,000, said Councilman Burgess. A .25 percent chunk of the total sale tax revenue would mean between $300,000 and $400,000 for parks and recreation.
Even if the tax was reinstated, Burgess said, the city would still be operating on a long-term deficit, and facing difficult decisions in regard to balancing an already strapped budget.
“This is not sustainable, we are going into debt to run our city government,” Burgess said. “We need to live within the means that (voters) have set for us, which we are not doing.”
Council members Bryan Zak and Gus Van Dyke voted against returning the food tax exemption to the voters with the parks and rec fund stipulation attached. Council members Francie Roberts, Burgess and Lewis voted in favor. Councilwoman Barbara Howard was granted an excused absence.
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