When two proposals to modify the City of Homer’s wintertime tax holiday on non-prepared foods were narrowly defeated at Monday night’s city council meeting, the long-debated issue appeared to be settled. But the grocery tax will be back for one more round – at the council’s next meeting in January.
Heading in to Monday night’s meeting, the Homer City Council appeared to be close to reversing a decision it made back in 2008, when it created the wintertime tax holiday on non-prepared foods. Council member Bryan Zak had proposed that the 4.5-percent tax be reinstated to help pay for a variety of services, including funding for the Homer Senior Center, the Homer Chamber of Commerce and a Cost of Living Allowance for city employees.
But unlike the public testimony taken at the council’s last meeting November 26th, which was mostly in support of the grocery tax hike, Monday night’s round of testimony was dead set against it.
Charles Crampton described himself as a farmer from Nikolaevsk who makes part of his living selling organic produce at the Homer Farmers Market. He made the point that food is a necessity for everyone.
"I believe that a tax on non-prepared food is little more than extortion," said Crampton.
Crampton said he disagreed with some of the pre-approved expenditures for the extra tax money, as well, including $50,000 earmarked for the Chamber of Commerce.
Another beneficiary of that pre-approved spending is the Homer Senior Center. Karen Kelly is executive director of Homer Senior Citizens, Incorporated. She testified Monday night that the ordinance was a “mixed blessing” for her organization.
"We would like to ... ask that you're mindful to the senior citizens," said Kelly. "The senior citizens will be affected by this very seriously."
Other testifiers said that local voters have twice expressed their desire to keep the wintertime tax holiday on non-prepared foods and that any tax on food is regressive by nature, affecting the poorest members of the community the most.
Council member David Lewis countered that when it comes to taxes, Alaskans have it relatively easy.
Lewis and other council members have made the point that the increased revenue from the grocery tax is necessary, not only to fund things like the senior center and the Chamber of Commerce but to help sock money away into depreciation accounts so the city is adequately prepared for unforeseen maintenance costs.
Council member Beau Burgess said discussions like this one are his least favorite part of being a public official.
"(This) is kicking the can down the road, in the sense that we're not funding our depreciation accounts," said Burgess.
After much discussion, council members voted 3-2 to pass the measure bringing back the wintertime grocery tax. However, due to rules that any city ordinance must have four votes to pass, the proposal failed.
Council member Barbara Howard, who has been a staunch opponent of the proposal, was absent from Monday’s meeting due to illness.
Another related ordinance, proposed by Lewis, that would have redefined the classification of “non-prepared foods” to exclude things like ice cream, candy and frozen microwave dinners, also failed Monday night.
Both proposed ordinances were dead – at least for a little while. Shortly after Monday’s meeting ended, council member James Dolma filed for reconsideration, meaning the matter will be taken up again at the council’s next meeting January 14th.
Dolma was unavailable for comment in time for this story.