Unusual Vote Leads to Failure of Grocery Tax Measure

Aaron Selbig

     One of the Homer City Council’s prickliest issues over the last few years has finally been put to bed … at least for now. It’s getting tough to keep track of the number of times Homer residents have testified before the city council about the grocery tax. And at this point, the arguments – both for and against – are becoming pretty familiar.

     Proponents of bringing back the seasonal tax on non-prepared foods say the city is financially strapped and needs the extra income to fund things the public has repeatedly said it wants – like a full-time city parks and recreation department.

     ""What's the harm in letting people vote on this?" asked council member Beau Burgess. "I don't see any harm in letting the people decide even if we think we know what the people will decide."

     It was Burgess who proposed the latest stab at resurrecting the grocery tax. His proposal would’ve put the question to local voters on this fall’s municipal ballot, asking them to approve the tax, with .25 percent of it going towards parks and rec.

    Kate Crowley represents Recreate Rec, a citizens group that has formed to advocate for parks and rec in Homer. Crowley and others worried that a potentially unpopular move to reinstate the tax would drag down efforts toward parks and rec. Crowley said Recreate Rec’s preferred avenue toward that goal would be for the Kenai Peninsula Borough to create a parks and rec service area for the southern peninsula.

     Another familiar refrain throughout this whole debate has been the “regressive” nature of taxes on food. Steve Hooker made that point again Monday night. Hooker says he works at the local food bank, where he sees Homer’s neediest families coming through for the bare necessities to get by.

     "You have to have a heart and a soul," said Hooker. "Anytime you have to start justifying to take away somebody's need, take a look at your heart and your conscience."

     Monday’s crowd of testifiers pretty much fit the same mold as those at the last council meeting. Most people were against the grocery tax. But not all of them.

     Andrew Haas is a local business owner and the current chair of the Friends of the Homer Public Library. 

     "The Friends are very grateful for the increased funding you gave to a lot of very needy agencies in town," said Haas. "The Friends acknowledges that it does hit people where it counts, in terms of food, but I have not heard of a better option."

     After about an hour of discussion, the “nays” had it and the council once again voted down the reinstatement of the grocery tax. But the vote itself was highly unusual and may have hinged on the votes of two people who did not even have a chance to vote. 

    The final tally was actually 3 to 2 in favor of putting the grocery tax issue on the ballot but because all council matters must have at least four votes to pass, it failed.

     Council member Barbara Howard was absent from Monday’s meeting. If Howard had voted for the tax, it obviously would have passed. But if she had voted against it, the vote would’ve been a 3-3 tie, giving Mayor Beth Wythe the chance to break that tie. Wythe has been an outspoken advocate of bringing back the seasonal grocery tax for a long time.

     As it stands, Homer voters will not have the chance to vote for a third time on the grocery tax. That is, unless someone on the council chooses to bring the issue back again.