The first Homer City Council meeting of 2014 will start the year of with a familiar refrain. For at least the fourth time in the last five years, council members will debate whether or not to end the wintertime grocery tax holiday they implemented in 2008.
The wintertime tax holiday on non-prepared foods first came into being when Kenai Peninsula Borough voters approved it at the ballot box in 2008 and the Homer City Council then decided to follow suit, including the 4.5 percent city sales tax in the bargain.
The next year, the issue came to the ballot box again and Homer voters – by a large margin – voted to keep the tax exemption. In 2012, council member Bryan Zak brought the issue up again, only to see it defeated after some very emotional testimony from members of the public.
This time around, it’s council member David Lewis putting the grocery tax issue back on the table, in the form of an ordinance the council will consider at its meeting Monday night. Lewis is making good on a promise he made during the latest round of budget discussions to offer Homer residents a chance to “put up or shut up.”
"People want things and so I am hoping that we start seeing the people ... come out in support of this," said Lewis. "if they don't, I think the odds of this passing would be slim."
People showed up to the council chambers in droves, says Lewis, when the council was considering slashing funds for the Pratt Museum and the Homer Foundation. He thinks there is a disconnect between the desires that people have for Homer city government and their desire to pay for them.
Lewis says he understands the point that taxes on food may be inherently unfair to the poorest people in Homer. He says that, looked at another way, though, a grocery tax is fair.
"The sales tax is the only way that we can hit everyone who lives outside of Homer but uses Homer," he says. "We're losing between $800,000 and $1 million by not having it."
He also points out that because Homer is a first-class city, it does not have the power to levy any taxes that are not already collected by the Kenai Peninsula Borough. Right now, that means the only two options are property tax and sales tax.
Lewis says he isn’t sure how much support there will be for his ordinance among council members.
"Not even my vote... is going to be guaranteed," he said.
Lewis’ grocery tax proposal won’t be the only one debated at Monday night’s council meeting. Council member Beau Burgess has introduced a separate ordinance that would put the grocery tax question to the voters again, at this year’s municipal election October 7th. Under Burgess’s proposal the extra sales tax money would be used to fund a City of Homer Parks and Recreation Department.