Election season is in full swing and the first debates of this year’s election cycle were held Tuesday. Both incumbents in an uncontested race for two seats on the Homer City Council answered questions from Homer Chamber of Commerce at Alice’s Champagne Palace.
But both candidates seeking to replace current Homer Mayor Bryan Zak also took to the stage, answering questions on everything from the city’s budget to the role the mayor plays on city council.
Ken Castner and David Lewis both made their first public appearances in the race to be Homer’s next mayor Tuesday, and the differences between the two candidates became clear in their opening statements.
Castner noted his experience sitting on several task forces and as the co-founder of the Homer Foundation. He also billed himself as a moderator and a mayor who will stray from creating policy. He said that will come in handy when the city council is split on a decision.
“Because I can do something that no other mayor has ever dared do and that is to not vote, not be the seventh vote on the council,” Castner said. “Just have the council knowing that the mayor will not vote the council is going to have to work together to get anything done, to find the fourth, fifth and sixth vote maybe.”
Lewis, who sat on the council for nine years, disagreed with Castner’s position, saying that it is the mayor’s job to help settle issues council members are divided on.
Lewis also strayed from Castner’s idea that the mayor should avoid creating policy. Lewis wants reintroduce a plastic bag ban, which the council had passed, but the ordinance was subsequently repealed by a citizen’s initiative.
“I was really proud of getting the plastic bag ban past. With that, we were a leader in the state, and now in that area we are sitting on the sidelines,” Lewis argued. “I know it’s a little bit controversial, but that is something we should look at again, especially being a tourist town.”
Lewis and Castner also varied on revenue and spending. The city will face a roughly $1.2 million budget gap next year. Residents voted to fill that gap three years ago by diverting the Homer Accelerated Roads and Trails or HART fund, a .75-percent tax earmarked for road and trail construction.
But that diversion is set to end in December. Lewis said his number one priority is to find additional revenue to help fill that gap.
He wants the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly to let borough residents vote a bed tax, which would drive more money into the city’s coffers, and he wants the city to pursue taxing bear viewing operations.
“They’re taking off and landing and there is not a sales tax that is being collected on it,” Lewis explained. “They were feeling that that’s about $250,000 a year that we aren’t getting, that’s just flying away, literally.”
Castner doesn’t view taxes as the solution and indicated that he would be in favor of looking to the $300,000 property tax exemption the state and borough give to seniors 65 and older as a way to help alleviate the city’s budget woes.
“Every time somebody like me turns to 65 or 66, our property comes off the rolls or most of it comes off the rolls,” Castner said. “We need to figure out if that’s the bifurcation we want in our tax system. Do we want to have people that pay more and people that pay less just based on their age?”
The council doesn’t have direct control over property tax exemptions given to seniors, and Castner did not say how he would motive either the state Legislature or the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly to take action on the issue.
The state mandates that municipalities give seniors a $150,000 exemption on their property taxes, and the Kenai Peninsula Borough also gives another $150,000 to seniors on top of the $50,000 exemption applied to every homer owner’s primary residence.
The city council did approve a resolution in 2015 asking the state to drop its mandated exemption. The city estimates that it lost out on $275,000 in taxable revenue from the exemption alone in 2014, and at the time, the city expected that 24 percent of Homer’s population would be 65 or older by 2027.
Reducing the city’s spending was also a topic of discussion. Castner said changing how the city uses the Homer Accelerated Roads and Trails fund might be a way to do that.
“That to me is an existing pool of money that we ought to think about as citizens,” he said. “Is this really what we want to spend money on is repaving certain roads every four years?”
Currently the fund pays for road and trail construction and maintenance. Lewis pushed back against the idea of cutting the budget, which he said has been cut to the bone.
“They are now using all the HART funds that Ken wants. They are using it to fund the maintenance of the roads so that they wouldn’t have to cut anything else,” Lewis added. “You could cut more, but what services do you want to get rid of?”
Castner and Lewis did agree somewhat on the city’s involvement in developing a large vessel haul-out facility. Both questioned whether it would be economically viable for the city to move forward with the project.
This is not the last time the two candidates will participate in a forum. Both will appear on KBBI’s Coffee Table on Sept. 19.