Soldotna residents ruled out a move to being a home-rule city in a special election Tuesday, voting down a proposal to form a commission to draft a new charter.
According to unofficial results posted after the polls closed at 8 p.m. Tuesday, the measure failed by a margin of 63.68 percent to 36.32 percent with 298 votes opposed to 170 in favor. Those 468 votes represent a voter turnout of about 14.56 percent. That’s consistent with voter turnout in most Soldotna elections, said City Clerk Shellie Saner.
“It’s about what I’m expecting. I expected us to keep where we are with our average on the normal election years,” Saner said. “… Our normal turnouts are, in the years that there is a borough mayors race, they’re generally higher, but our average turnout on a normal year are 500 to 600.”
Becoming a home-rule city would give Soldotna greater ability to determine it’s own powers and policies, versus its current status as a first-class city. The issue largely driving the vote is a proposed exemption of sales taxes on nonprepared foods in the winter. A previous boroughwide voter initiative stopped the borough from collecting sales taxes on groceries in the winter, but the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly passed an ordinance that general-law cities would still continue to do so. The measure will come up for borough vote in the October 2015 general election. If it passes, Soldotna will no longer collect its 3 percent sales tax on groceries in the winter.
That could have anywhere from a $785,000 to $1.2 million hit on the city’s budget, administration has said. So the move to home rule was an attempt to get ahead of that curve by giving the city to ability to set its own taxation policy.
City Council Member Keith Baxter was one of seven residents who threw their hat in the ring to be on the charter commission. He said he saw the move to home rule as a way to limit taxes in Soldotna, as the council has discussed raising property taxes if the sales tax revenue is lost. He doesn’t like that idea, because property taxes will be a larger burden on Soldotna residents, rather than sales taxes, which are paid by anyone shopping in Soldotna, he said.
“If we were to make it up dollar for dollar in property tax, my property tax would have to increase 400 percent, so that’s a tough one to swallow if you live in city limits and are raising a young family and you pay property tax,” Baxter said.