A seven-member charter commission will likely spend the next year working on a home-rule charter for Soldotna.
In a special election Tuesday, Soldotna voters approved a proposition that asked “Shall a Charter Commission be Elected to Prepare a Proposed Charter?” Unofficial results Tuesday night showed they approved the commission formation by a vote of 243 to 162, said City Manager Mark Dixson.
If the approximately 115 absentee ballots come in at roughly the same percentage, the commission will be formed, he said.
The commission now has a year to come up with a charter to make the city home rule, which will also go before the city’s voters. If the charter is voted down, the commission has another year to come up with another charter. If that charter were also voted down, it would end the home-rule process at that point.
Running for the seven seats that make up the commission were Roberta O’Neill, Penny Vadla, Scott Davis, Jerry Farrington, RoseMary Reeder, Linda Hutchings, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Dale Bagley and Soldotna City Council members Linda Murphy and Tim Cashman.
Of those nine, Farrington and O’Neill received the fewest votes. There were 42 write-ins, Dixson said.
“I think everybody worked very, very hard on educating the public,” Hutchings said.
The next step will be for the commission members to start looking through the home-rule charters of other Alaska cities, which Hutchings said they have already asked to be sent to them. She said work on the charter should begin “very soon.”
Residents came to vote in a steady stream that picked up around lunchtime, said Election Board Member Carol Freas. By about 1 p.m. Tuesday, 154 people had placed their vote. Dixson said the turnout appears to be about the same or a little less than last year’s special election on the same issue.
Marlene Lewis said she voted in favor of forming a charter commission because she thinks “it’s a good move for everyone.” In terms of what could happen with the city’s sales tax, she said it would be more beneficial to have it year-round.
“It’s really going to hurt all the community members if they don’t have it because their taxes will come in harder in other areas and it will be limited to a few,” Lewis said. “Otherwise it’ll affect others too and it’ll be more well rounded to benefit everybody. … I think it’s a more fair distribution for everyone.”
Lin Kennedy also voted in favor of forming the commission.
“Personally, having lived in Soldotna for 30 years, I think the residents, the citizens of Soldotna, should be the ones that dictate what we can and can’t do,” Kennedy said. “And I don’t appreciate people outside the city trying to tell our city council what they can and can’t do, so I think (a) home-rule charter in the long run is going to be best for the residents of Soldotna.”
A handful of voters coming and going Tuesday afternoon said they had voted against forming the commission. John Lansing Sr. has lived in Soldotna for 38 years, and said he voted against the proposition because he doesn’t believe in home rule. He has seen special interest groups come forward and dictate how things are run too often, he said.
The issue of forming a charter commission was put back before Soldotna voters in part because the city’s year-round sales tax on nonprepared food items was repealed during the last October general election. Several candidates have said the most logical way to make up for the projected $1.2 million loss in sales tax revenue is to make Soldotna a home-rule city, since that would give it the power to set its own tax rates.
Home-rule cities have other powers not afforded to first and second class cities. In a previous Clarion interview, Murphy said she would be interested in looking at the makeup of the Soldotna City Council. As it is, Mayor Pete Sprague is not a voting member, but has veto power, unlike in other home-rule communities.
Without home rule as an option, Soldotna administrators had suggested raising the city’s property taxes. Soldotna’s proposed budget currently includes a mill rate increase from 0.5 to 2 mills, a fourfold increase. Cashman and council members Paul Whitney and Keith Baxter all said they would not be comfortable raising the mill rate that high at a May 3 budget work session. The city council will vote on the budget June 8.
During the same budget work session, Dixson said annexation is another way Soldotna could make up for lost revenue by annexing areas on the city’s borders where businesses have been cropping up.
Of the election, Bagley said it’s now time for the commission members to roll up their sleeves and get to work on the charter.
“I think the yes votes will prevail,” he said.