City of Seward, Council, Featured

Council Approves Increases to Water, Sewer and Property Taxes

by Kelley Lane for Seward City News-
Council Chambers overflowed into the hallway of City Hall during Monday’s meeting. Photo: Kelley Lane.

City Council met for its only November meeting on Monday night. All City Council members were in attendance, as well as all members of the City Administration, including City Manager Jim Hunt, Assistant City Manager Ron Long, City Attorney Will Earnhart and City Clerk Brenda Ballou. Police Chief Tom Clemons led those assembled in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. The agenda was then launched into promptly, as there was a plentitude of items to be addressed. Council Chambers overflowed into the hallway with members of the public in attendance.

Matt Nelson, a city employee, spoke during citizen comments saying “I want to thank all of you who saved my job.” Nelson’s custodial position had been on the chopping block as part of the 2018-2019 budget process, in an effort to address a deficit in the budget and to outsource local government jobs to third parties. Carol Griswold stated that “city employees are our most valuable asset.” She further encouraged the City administration to strive for accountability with regards to travel plans and expenses. Linda Lasota of Historic Preservation Commission sought to make Council aware of their completed plan, stating that it is currently on its way for review with the Planning and Zoning Commission, and that it will eventually make its way before Council.

Kenn Carpenter, Seward’s representative on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, reported that the bed tax will be discussed again at their December 5th meeting. The public is welcome to attend the meeting, which will be held in Soldotna at 6pm. (http://www.kpb.us/assembly-clerk). Carpenter reported victory for Dean Carl at last week’s meeting, with permission obtained to buy a 100 foot stretch of property along the Seward Highway. Carl currently owns property located directly across the street from the Pit Bar. His driveway’s current position presents a public safety issue. The addition of 100 feet of property will allow him to relocate his driveway farther away from the curve and the Pit Bar’s parking lot. Carpenter thanked Ron Long for his letter of support, which helped to get the necessary votes at the Assembly meeting.

Cindy Clock of the Seward Chamber of Commerce reported that the recent heat pump class hosted at the Chamber was well attended. It is “in the works” for the Chamber to get a heat pump, said Clock. Clock said that chamber board members and Clock attended the “Fish Expo” held in Seattle, WA. There were other Seward representatives as well, including Terry Federer of AVTEC. Clock said that this year’s REI winter catalog showcases Seward. The photoshoot was done in March of this past year, with support from many Seward locals, including captains Bixler McClure and Mike Brittain. She opened the catalog to display a photo taken from the water, looking back at downtown Seward.

City Attorney Will Earnart spoke at length in an effort to explain the role of the City attorney. “I advise Council, the City Managers and even the Clerk’s office, but I don’t make policy.” He urged council members to focus on making policy. “If the process is broken, let’s do something about that.” He said that the role of being a Council Member is to set policy, and that they “can’t get involved in day to day operations.” Earnhart alluded to recent situations that were prompting these comments, but did not give specifics.

Martha Fleming of the Planning and Zoning (P & Z) Commission, who also videotapes and broadcasts the Council meetings for GCI, gave a brief report. “It’s been a slow quarter.” She invited the public to attend any of their meetings, which are held on Tuesday and Thursday evenings in Council chambers. P & Z has recently finished work on updating the camping codes. The updated ordinances are at the clerk’s office for review.

Seward High School students present their Lowell Creek hydro power generation idea to City Council. Photo by Kelley Lane.

Seward High School students had waited patiently for their chance to present. Three young women stood in front of the public, dressed professionally. They spoke with clarity about their idea to create a hydro facility in Lowell Canyon. Their proposal would potentially cost 7 million to build, but could save Seward up to 23 million over 10 years. Among the pros for the project were diversifying Seward’s power sources, less reliance on Chugach electric and that the foundation for the system is already in place. Mayor Squires thanked the students for their presentation. He suggested looking into doing the project on Scheffler’s Creek, accessible by the Jeep Trail. He offered to lead a field trip to tour the site of a 1940s hydro project in that area.

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Pete Ford, of Alaska Public Employees Association (APEA) spoke, at the invitation of Council Member Towsley. APEA is a union that represents over 8,000 employees around Alaska. They have been in communication with the Seward Police Department regarding providing representation for them. Ford said that they have “collected cards from the majority of police officers,” but that Seward has a “strange, unusual ordinance regarding collective bargaining.” Ford said that he is “willing to meet with a neutral third party who could verify our showing of support.”

Council Members Towsley, Horn, Casagranda and Mayor Squires reported on their time at the Alaska Municipal League (AML) conference. AML is a yearly conference that seeks to train newly elected officials and provide continued, specific learning for all elected officials. Each gave brief reports and thanked the citizens of Seward for sending them. Council Member Horn said that he benefitted from participating in mock meetings, in which he played the role of the City Attorney. Council Member Towsley said that she attended training on the parliamentary procedure.

City of Seward Finance Director Kris Erchinger reported that the City will be opening a new public section of the cemetery, as the current section has reached capacity.

Next followed an open citizen comments forum on any matter relating to the budget. Carol Griswold, a concerned citizen, spoke of her concern with raising the mill rate (the amount per $1,000 used to calculate taxes on property). Further, she urged City Council to “end winter subsidized camping.” Griswold said that winter camping is losing money for the city and is out of compliance with City Code. Griswold pointed to a line item proposed capital expenditure, under the Parks and Recreation budget for a $20,000 ranger cabin. The  proposed cabin would be built in Two Lakes Park, which Griswold pointed out is not in compliance with City Code. Council Members discussed the matter, and then voted unanimously to remove the line item from the budget.

Resolution 2017-057 sets the new mill rate at 3.84 for the City portion of real property tax. Council Member Casagranda stated that she was “trying to figure out the mill rate.” Assistant City Manager Ron Long explained that we “can predict pretty well what real property is going to do,” but that “personal property can move around.” The increase in mill rate is intended to cover the debt service on road bonds, a measure that was put to public ballot and passed. In the discussion, Casagranda asked about the income that has come from having an oil rig stored at Seward Marine Industrial Center (SMIC). That has generated about $130,000 of unanticipated income for the City. According to Long, unpredictable income such as this is usually not factored into budgets, because it’s uncertain how long it will continue. The oil rig is likely to move away next budget year. Casagranda asked for help understanding what happens with this extra income. Long explained that at year’s end, extra funds are distributed into specific accounts. 50% goes to capital projects and 50% goes to towards building the reserve budget, in an attempt to save 3-6 months worth of City operating expenses. At the conclusion of this discussion, all of the budget related resolutions, 2017-057-2017-067 were voted on and approved unanimously.

Resolutions 2017-077 and 2017-078 amend the Seward tariff schedule to implement a 2.1% increase in sewer and water charges. Additionally, the resolutions provide for fees for seasonal shut off of these utilities. Assistant City Manager Ron Long said that “without off and on charges, it places the burden on full year users to pay for the upkeep of infrastructure.” Council Member Towsley asked about whether the resolutions take into account the potential of heat pumps to consume large amounts of water. Public Works Director Doug Schoessler said that “there’s just one heat pump in town at this point; we’re at the tip of this.” He agreed that future installation of heat pumps could have a big effect on how much water is used and thus will need to be processed through the sewage system. Both resolutions passed and the increased water and sewer rates will go into effect January 1, 2018.

City Electric Utility Manager John Foutz and Finance Director Kris Erchinger spoke about Resolution 2017-083. The resolution seeks to update the Bradley Lake project by buying into the Battle Creek diversion, which will divert the creek in order to add longer duration to hydro generation capabilities. Bradley Lake is Alaska’s largest hydro power project, being constructed on the Kenai Peninsula. The City of Seward owns a 1% share in the project. Erchinger said that the “whole project is financed,” and will require a maximum of $42,000 upfront costs. Foutz stated that the project will “only get more economical into the future.” The project is anticipated to provide “653 megawatts per year of power, at a cost 30% less expensive than anything else,” according to Foutz.

The meeting quickly proceeded towards adjournment due to City Code stating that all meetings must end by 10:30pm. Vice Mayor Keil suggested that Citizen comments be heard, followed by adjournment of the meeting for the following morning. Seward Police Officer Patrick Messmer stood to speak at the lectern. He said that “we don’t have representation. That’s why we want a union. It’s not about money.” He said that officers need representation so that “officers feel safe to do their job.”

The meeting adjourned and the large crowd that had stuck it out until the adjournment dispersed out to the sloppy streets of Seward. The following morning, City Council reconvened at 9am, for an additional hour of meeting time. The City goals and priority lists that will be provided to the Kenai Peninsula Borough and the State of Alaska will be discussed at the next regularly scheduled Council meeting. The next Council meeting will be held on Monday, December 11th at 7pm. Recordings of Council meetings can be found at: https://www.cityofseward.us/index.aspx?NID=912

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