Soldotna voters to readdress home rule

Editor’s note: This story has bee updated to correct the spelling of Roberta O’Neill’s name.

Soldotna voters will revisit the idea of home rule during the city’s upcoming special election.

Set for Tuesday, May 10, the election will decide whether to establish a seven-member charter commission, which would draft a charter for the city to become a home-rule community. The charter, which would also require voter approval, would allow the city more autonomy and powers, such as setting its own tax rates. Soldotna is currently a first-class general law city and is more limited by state statute.

The election came about after a citizen initiative bearing the required just over 100 signatures was brought to the Soldotna City Council. The council then had to decide whether to put the question on the general election ballot in October or hold a special election. Members opted for the latter.

Among the nine candidates who are so far running for the commission seats are Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Dale Bagley and Soldotna City Council members Linda Murphy and Tim Cashman. Other candidates include Linda Hutchings, one of the members who brought forward the citizen’s initiative, as well as Penny Vadla, Jerry Farrington, Roberta O’Neill, Rose Mary Reeder and Scott Davis.

Bagley, Murphy and Cashman said they are running because they want to help make Soldotna more autonomous.

“Home rule communities have the maximum amount of local government control,” Murphy said.

The three also agreed the vote that rid Soldotna of its year-round sales tax on non-prepared food items during the last general election was a major motivator in revisiting the idea of home rule.

The city has been projected to lose approximately $1.2 million without the tax.

Bagley, Murphy and Cashman also said that the residents who were in favor of eliminating the year-round tax seemed mostly to live outside city limits, citing the general election results which show that the proposition passed by 58 percent, but that nearly 63.5 percent of Soldotna voters opposed the change.

“On the borough-wide election that happened … last fall, Soldotna residents 2-1 said, ‘We do not want to do what the borough wants us to do,’” Bagley said.

The fact that he represents Soldotna, along with some areas just outside the city, was one of the reasons Bagley felt he should run to be on the charter commission, Bagley said. Bagley has also proposed an ordinance to the borough assembly that would extend the tax to apply for six months instead of the current three. The ordinance will come up for public hearing at the assembly’s May 3 meeting.

The argument against making Soldotna a home-rule city also may hinge on taxes.

Those who are opposed do not want the year-round sales tax reinstated, the candidates said.

Murphy and Cashman addressed that concern at the last Soldotna City Council meeting, saying that moving to home rule does not automatically raise taxes, but shifts the way they are being paid.

Murphy, Bagley and Cashman all said the most likely way for the city to make up for lost revenue will be to raise property taxes in Soldotna. This is something that would affect not only homeowners, but renters as well, Murphy said. When people who own rental property are taxed at a higher rate, they trickle that increase down to their tenants, she said.

“It would affect everybody living in the city if we didn’t have that ability (to set taxes),” Murphy said.

At a previous Soldotna City Council meeting, City Manager Mark Dixon said administrators are considering including a fourfold mill rate increase in this year’s budget cycle, which he said would still leave the city with a gap of about $900,000.

By having a sales tax on non-prepared food items all year, a larger number of people would taxed a smaller amount, compared to the smaller number of people in Soldotna who would have their property taxes raised, Cashman said.

“Home rule does not equal higher taxes. It absolutely does not,” he said. “It changes the group that is paying them to be more inclusive.”

If the charter commission is elected, it will have one year to draft a charter for the city, which would also have to go before the public for a vote. Murphy said she does not expect that the commission would have one ready by the upcoming October general election.

The candidates said they will likely look at charters of other home-rule cities, like Seward and Kenai.

If the charter is voted down, the commission would have another year to draft another charter. If it was voted down a second time, the cycle would be over, and the process would need to start over.

 

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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