The Homer City Council rang in the New Year with one of its longest meetings in recent memory. For over four hours, the council debated many issues large and small. At the top of the list were two proposals aimed at bringing back the city’s wintertime sales tax on non-prepared foods.
The two proposals on the table Monday night had the same goal but went about achieving it in very different ways.
Council member David Lewis took the straightforward approach of bringing back the city’s wintertime grocery tax, something the council has the power to do on its own. Council member Beau Burgess preferred to put the issue to the voters.
A few people testified about the grocery tax Monday night.
Homer Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Lavrakas said the chamber’s board of directors does not support bringing back the year-round grocery tax.
"They would like me to say that the city should work harder to make the business climate in Homer more inviting to new business," said Lavrakas. "This would help increase the tax base."
Kate Crowley spoke to Burgess’s Ordinance 14-03, which calls for the reinstatement of the full 4.5 percent sales tax on non-prepared foods year-round, with .25 percent of the tax to be dedicated toward funding a city parks and recreation department. Crowley wondered what guarantee there would be that the dedication of funds for parks and rec would stick around.
In a December memo to the council, City Attorney Thomas Klinkner addressed Burgess’ proposal. He said the council cannot “abridge its own legislative power” by enacting an ordinance that dedicates sales tax revenue to fund a parks and recreation department. Klinkner says that even if Homer voters approve the dedication of tax revenues to a particular purpose, the city council could later amend or repeal that ordinance.
The city also has the power to bring back the grocery tax without a vote of the people. That’s exactly what Lewis was calling for with his proposal.
Lewis said Monday that the City of Homer has “a lot going on” and doesn’t have enough money to pay for all of the services that its citizens are asking for. He reiterated an argument that extra sales tax is a good way – perhaps the only way – for the council to bring in money from people who live outside of Homer.
"I've talked with a lot of people that live outside the city limits and they have said they don't mind paying it, in order to support the facilities they use," said Lewis.
Council member Bryan Zak said that after two public votes on the subject and three council proposals in the last four years, he is sick of hearing about the grocery tax issue.
By a 4-2 vote, the council rejected Lewis’s proposal and turned its attention to Burgess’s. Burgess framed his argument this way:
"We've basically said (to) the voters, 'You can have ice cream or you can go see a movie,'" said Burgess. "And the voters have said (they) want ice cream and they want to go see a movie. My intent with this ordinance is ... to say that if your taxes go up, it pays for this thing.If you don't want to raise your taxes, we can't afford to do this thing that is not in the 'essential city services' scope."
By another 4-2 vote, the council voted to introduce Burgess’s proposal. That means it will be taken up again, at the council’s next meeting January 27th.