Bed tax

Visitors enjoy the weather while reading informational placards in the Golden Heart Plaza downtown Friday afternoon, June 7, 2019. 

Fairbanks City Council voted down an amendment that would remove a mill rate cap from the city’s charter — for reasons that had little to do with the ordinance itself. Ordinance 6109, had it passed, would have sent the issue of whether to remove the city’s cap-within-a-cap to voters. The cap-within-a-cap sets the city’s mill rate to 4.9 mills, and had voters removed it, a small increase in property taxes would have occurred.

Last Friday, Councilmember Kathryn Ottersten withdrew her sponsorship of the ordinance in a public letter criticizing the mayor’s use of a city vehicle for personal use. She said she felt the city council had shown a lack of oversight over the benefit and said, for that reason, she could not support an ordinance asking for more tax funds.

Mayor Jim Matherly admitted that he had used a city vehicle for personal use. He stated that his mayoral duties took him all over town and said he had instructed his staff to calculate his personal tax responsibility for the use of the city’s vehicle, which he understood to be part of the mayor’s benefit package, but hadn’t known he had to report as income.

Despite this, Ottersten was not moved to reinstate her sponsorship of the ordinance.

Councilmember Jerry Cleworth stated his own disappointment in the actions of the council, but for a different reason. One item prior to the public hearing for Ordinance 6109, the council voted to effectively kill discussion of a resolution in disagreement of Alaska State House Bill 79.

The bill would return Alaska to a defined benefit plan for certain public employees, such as police officers and firefighters. Cleworth said previous use of a similar plan had caused the state to go into debt.

Councilmember Valerie Therrien said she felt now was not the time to discuss the matter, as HB 79 would not pass through Legislature this year. The council voted to postpone the resolution indefinitely, in favor of re-examining the issue if it comes in from state legislature next year.

Cleworth said he felt “embarrassed” to bring the mill rate ordinance forward, though he had written it and worked to perfect its wording with the council over the course of two finance committee meetings and one council meeting. He said he was initially unsure about whether to write the ordinance at all, but had done so at the request of the council. Still, he said he felt so strongly that the council’s refusal to vote on the defined benefit resolution made for poor fiscal stewardship that he rescinded his support of the mill rate ordinance.

“And I wrote the darn thing,” Cleworth said, “I encourage you to vote ‘no.’”

Councilmembers Shoshana Kun and June Rogers both thanked Cleworth for his work on the ordinance. Rogers, in honor of Cleworth’s effort, committed herself to voting in line with however Cleworth voted.

Cleworth, Rogers, Ottersten and Councilmember David Pruhs all voted against the ordinance. Kun and Therrien both voted in favor of the ordinance.

The ordinance required the full support of the council to move forward to the ballot.

Contact Cheryl Upshaw at 459-7572 or follow her on Twitter: @FDNMCity.