Voters in Soldotna will once again be tasked with deciding whether they want to live in a home-rule city.
The Soldotna City Council voted at its Wednesday meeting to have the city administration draft a resolution to hold a special election to decide the home-rule issue. That resolution will come before the council at its next meeting on Feb. 24.
The vote followed the completion of a petition requesting a charter commission election. Sponsors of the petition were tasked in November 2015 with collecting 103 signatures in 90 days, said Soldotna City Clerk Shellie Saner. The petition was deemed to be four signatures short when it was first turned in, and Linda Hutchings, one of the sponsors, was notified.
“Ms. Hutchings submitted the four signatures needed by the end of the day so the petition was certified on … Feb. 1,” Saner said while briefing the council. “Now the citizens have done their due diligence and the question gets placed before the voters. The option … up to the council at this point is when.”
Had the council taken no action, the home-rule question would have shown up during the general election in October, Saner said.
Home rule would give Soldotna, among other powers, the ability to determine tax rates. Soldotna voters rejected the creation of a charter commission when the option of home rule was placed before them in a February 2015 special election.
Since Proposition 1, a controversial measure to remove the city’s year-round grocery tax, passed in the most recent general election, the push for home rule is being renewed in an attempt to make up for the projected $1.2 million Soldotna stands to lose from no longer collecting a sales tax on groceries during winter months.
“I sit on (Parks and Recreation), and we have lovely parks in this town, we have a wonderful library, we provide many functions at the parks,” Hutchings said. “When you lose the sales tax … that is going to come out of discretionary funds, so this is the only way to get it back.”
Council members Keith Baxter and Meggean Bos-Marquez voted against the special election.
Baxter said while he supports the push for home rule status, he favored the idea of putting the question on the general election ballot in order to get a larger voter turnout as well as save the cost of putting on a special election and printing educational material for voters.
“I hadn’t considered that spending a couple extra bucks to do it earlier was going to help us some way,” Baxter said. “The only benefit I’ve heard articulated is top-of-mind awareness. Is that what I’m hearing, is that it’s just everybody understands it now and they’ll forget by October?”
Hutchings urged the council before their vote to opt for a special election, saying it would be better to hold one while the issue is still fresh in people’s minds. She also said acting before the state finalizes its own taxes would be prudent.
“(Voter turnout) depends on what’s on that general election,” she said. “The better turnout happened to be something that had to do with the whole borough voting and so everybody got involved with it, whereas if you have something that’s just for the city of Soldotna, I feel like it will have a better chance.”
One Soldotna resident appeared to speak against the special election.
Daniel Lynch said he supported putting the home-rule question in the general election in order to include the area’s snow birds who might not be able to participate otherwise.
Saner provided more clarification during the discussion, saying that, if approved by voters, a charter commission has one year to draft a home-rule charter, which then also has to go before voters.
If the charter fails at the polls, the commission gets another year to draft a new one. If that charter was also voted down, that would put an end to the process at that point, Saner said.
For a charter commission to be created, voters also have to elect the commission’s seven members during the same election, Saner said.
If seven members do not run or are not elected, the effort to make the commission dies.
The cost to put on last year’s special election was just more than $5,000, Saner said.
Baxter clarified that, combined with education materials, the cost came to approximately $12,000.
“The last special election was brought forward by the council so the council appropriated additional funding for distribution of information about the election,” Saner said. “That’s optional.”
The earliest a special election could be held is May 9, if the resolution being drafted by administration is approved at the next city council meeting.
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