The City of Homer held its first public hearing on the 2020 and 2021 budget Monday night and proposed a long list of changes, substitutions and corrections. The budgets, which totaled nearly $22 million for 2020 and 2021 prior to the council’s proposed amendments are the first attempt at approving a two-year budget process.
While the budget’s final approval vote won’t be held until Dec. 9, council considered and passed a long list of amendments this week, including a significant increase to the city worker wages. The original budget included a 1.5% cost of living increase for city employees both years, but the council increased that to 3% for 2020 and 1% for 2021.
Preliminary figures indicate the change will cost around $93,000.
Council member Donna Aderhold sponsored the amendment.
“One phrase really stuck with me and that was inflation-proofing assets. There is no greater asset that the city has than its employees. This, to me, is inflation proofing our investment,” said Aderhold.
Council member Heath Smith doesn’t believe that Homer residents expenses have risen enough to justify more than the 1.5% increase that was already included in the budget.
Smith said there are many people living and working in Homer that don’t get a cost of living increase and they still turn up to do their jobs.
“I don’t want to lose sight of what is reasonable, prudent and sustainable – percent for percent, I don’t think this is a reasonable path forward. It’s reasonable what was proposed by the manager. If you look at the salary and wage increases throughout these departments, they are more than inflation-proof,” said Smith.
The amendment passed 5-1 with Smith as the lone vote against the increase.
The council also considered an amendment to add a police officer to the Homer Police Department, a move that will likely cost close to $100,000 a year. According to the city, the police department hasn’t added an officer’s position for more than 20 years.
Homer Police Department Sgt. Ryan Browning testified in favor of adding the position.
“Currently, we're unable to cover all shifts with two or more officers. Our weekly schedule has a minimum four hours out of every single day that has single officer coverage. This does not take into account if an officer at court is tied up on an arrest or any number of other things that mean we have no officers available for routine calls.
This is a huge liability. Right now, Homer has the lowest officer resident ratio and compatibly sized cities so that Soldotna has one officer for every 332 residents, Wasilla, 406, Kenai, 432 Palmer, 450, and us at one officer per 500 residents. As a member of the men and women who put ourselves out there day in and day out to make a safer community, I hope you all continue your support to fund a very much needed 13th position," said Browning.
The amendment passed by unanimous consent.
The council heard a report from city Finance Director Elizabeth Walton regarding the city’s effort to clean up its capital project financial accounting.
According to Walton, the city has identified dozens of capital projects, accounts that were not appropriately closed out — some from as far back as 19 years. While some of these projects were only over or under budget by a few hundred dollars, others, like an improvement project at Mariner Park in 2000, have a fund balance of more than $22,000. In his final comments, Mayor Ken Castner questioned how audits of the city finances did not flag the many open accounts. He said it was his opinion that the auditors - BDO USA LLP, an accounting firm based in Chicago, didn’t complete a proper audit.
“So when I asked all these questions of the auditor. Why didn’t you see this? We didn’t close accounts, we overran accounts, we overran appropriations. I think we owe it to the population here to have a better auditing process so that they understand that we’ve been evaluated fairly and completely," said Castner.
Despite the reservations, the council passed a resolution accepting the 2018 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and audit. The city says it intends to have the accounting cleanup effort completed by the end of the year and put procedures in place to prevent open accounts from lingering in the future.
In his Mayor’s Report, Castner spoke about The Alaska Municipal League meeting that he, several members of the Council and city employees attended last week in Anchorage.
" Councilmember Aderhold was there Councilmember Venuti was there, Councilmember Lord was there and Councilmember Evensen was there and I was there. All the clerks came up and Melissa Jacobson was elected to the presidency of the Alaska Association of Municipal Clerks. Katie Koester was elected to the presidency of the Alaska Municipal Management Association, and Brian Hawkins is currently serving as the Alaska Harbormasters Association President.So there's a lot of leadership coming out of Homer right now in AML," said Mayor Castner.
The council adopted an amendment proposed by Councilmember Aderhold to spend $34,000 to bring nine parking spaces on the spit into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
"This project was proposed by Port and Harbor but was not included in the budget initially by the city manager. So I picked it up. We have some remaining funds for ADA work, and this is not for new parking spaces. It is existing parking spaces that are labeled as ADA accessible, but they're actually not because they're gravel or they are not marked appropriately," said Aderhold.
Councilmember Aderhold is a member of the city’s Americans with Disabilities Act Compliance Committee. She said in her committee report to the council that the group is having trouble making a quorum for their meetings.
"One of the reasons we didn't have a quorum is that we're down one member. Anybody who is interested in becoming a member of the American's with Disabilities Compliance Committee, please contact the clerk's office. It's probably the most fun committee," said Aderhold.
A second public hearing and final action on the budget is expected to take place at the next Homer City Council meeting on December 9. The meeting will be held in Cowles Council Chambers at Homer City Hall.