Soldotna Charter Commission members are trying to reach as many people as possible before the upcoming October election to educate them about a measure that could make the city a home-rule community.
A proposed home-rule charter drafted by the seven-member commission is up for public vote during the Oct. 4 regular municipal election. Three commission members spoke to a small crowd about the proposed charter at a Soldotna Chamber of Commerce luncheon Tuesday at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex.
Soldotna voters have had mixed reactions to creating a charter commission in the past. More recently, commission members pointed out that Soldotna residents overwhelmingly opposed ridding the city of its year-round sales tax, an issue they say could be rectified if Soldotna was home rule.
Commission Vice Chair Linda Hutchings pointed out that Soldotna currently has a mill rate of 0.5, which is low compared to other cities in the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
“Without the possibility of home rule, which would give us an option to diversify our taxes, rather than just property taxes, we are not going to be able to see this low (mill) rate any longer,” Hutchings said.
Without the year-round sales tax on food items, the city has lost around $800,000 in revenue compared with last year, said commission member Linda Murphy.
“What we want to do is to reinstate that sales tax because really in the long run for residents of the city, that is much less expensive than raising the mill rate to 2 or 3 mills to cover that loss,” she said.
Murphy also pointed out that, if Soldotna has to raise its mill rate to cover lost revenue, that would include grocery stores like Fred Meyer, which would likely have to raise prices for groceries to compensate.
Being a home-rule community would give Soldotna the power to let its own residents make decisions about certain things, rather than being confined to the way the borough does them, commission members said. This is the advantage home-rule communities have over general law communities, they said. Soldotna is currently a first class general law community.
“Currently as a general law community, we have to follow any exemptions that the borough places on its … sales tax because the borough collects that sales tax for us and then remits it back to the city,” Murphy said.
Hutchings added if Soldotna could be in charge of setting its own sales tax, it might be more friendly and welcoming to younger families who could not afford to live in cities with high property taxes.
“If we aren’t a home rule (community) and we aren’t able to change our taxation, you are going to see our mill rate go up, and that’s going to affect not the people outside the city necessarily, it’s not going to affect a lot of seniors because we’re already exemptions … it’s going to affect your 18-55 year olds that are having to pay a full amount of the property taxes,” Hutchings said. “We want to be a community that welcomes young families into our area and I don’t think we can do this unless we do pass home rule.”
One concern raised at the luncheon was that the home-rule question brings with it the perception of larger or more powerful government. Commission Chair Scott Davis said that a home-rule community “puts the control in the city voters’ hands.”
A home-rule charter could not be changed by the Soldotna City Council, but could be changed in the future by a vote of Soldotna residents, commission members said.
Soldotna City Clerk Shellie Saner said the charter would go into effect, if approved by voters, on the day the October election is certified. If the charter is voted down, the commission has another year to draft another charter, which would also be put before Soldotna voters.
At the public hearing held for the draft charter before it was approved to go to the ballot, only two people showed up, and neither of them lived within Soldotna city limits. Murphy said she is still not sure of the best way to get the word out to the public and avoid misinformation when it comes to ballot measures.
Commissioners also held an open house where members of the public could come air their concerns or questions about the proposed charter Tuesday evening at Soldotna City Hall.