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Sunday, March 25, 2012


at the special meeting...

The Palmer City Council special meeting last week opened with audience participation and two citizens stepped up to be heard.  The first was a not so surprising statement about the city keeping organizations and individuals informed of issues that pertain to their interests.  We hear this all the time at local, state and federal levels of government.  You know, the “we didn’t know about this until last week, or yesterday” or you can fill in the blank.  It boggles the mind that concerned citizens think it is the government’s duty to let them know when something that will affect them shows up on the council’s agenda.  Never mind the fact that Palmer has a fairly user friendly and comprehensive website with agendas, council minutes and upcoming and adopted legislation.  Agendas are also posted in the local papers and the city has a friendly, helpful clerk and staff available to give out information.  Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty.  So the lesson here is pay attention, get informed or live in a bubble of the unknown.   Next up was a citizen with ideas for traffic calming measures and additional parking.  It was suggested that there be heaves or dips which was a bit amusing.  Isn’t that what frost in the ground does to roads?  As for parking, just allow driveways to be wider.  Hmmm… less lawn to mow?

Aren’t there always bumps in the road?
Resolution 12-019 adopting recommendations from a traffic survey report concerning traffic calming measures in the south Felton Street area and directing the city manager to develop a traffic calming plan for the council’s consideration hit a bump or should we say a hump in the road.  Much discussion ensued about the wording of the resolution and in particular the title of the resolution.  Some council members didn’t want to be limited to traffic humps but wanted more options.  In the end, the resolution was amended to ask the city manager to come back to the council with a traffic-calming plan that contained more choices and alternatives for them to consider.  Hopefully they will get over the hump the next time this comes up.

Let’s roll up our sleeves & get to work!
The council then entered into a committee of the whole, otherwise fondly known in other government circles as work session mode to take up several important and all consuming issues.  During these sessions no action can be taken until they return to the regular meeting mode.  The Mayor ran a pretty good meeting except for perhaps too many lengthy breaks.  That being said, the Mayor is to be commended for a truly open public process during the work session and allowed for any and all audience members to participate throughout the session.  This is an unheard of and a foreign concept for borough residents at assembly work sessions unless you are a business or industry.
First item of interest was a discussion about boards & commissions. Three were up for consideration, the planning commission, the aviation advisory board and the economic development board.  Right off the bat the city attorney informed the council that the planning commission is a necessary entity mandated by the state and so a done deal.  Apparently the aviation advisory board and the economic development board have vacancies and difficulty in getting quorums for meetings. 

It’s the Economy stupid
The economic development board was formed to develop a plan for Palmer and they spent 4 years drafting one that was on this meetings agenda for the council to adopt.  A board member was asked to the table to give thoughts and ideas of the future of this board.  Thoughts about the value of community forums to assist with the process and that the board could help with implementation of the plan, you know, the hard part, were shared with the council.  One council member stated that they were not in favor of the board initially but was fairly happy with the product delivered and thought the board should continue for a while longer.  Another council member advocated for disbanding the board and hiring a marketing specialist to go out into the big wide world and entice businesses to locate in Palmer.  Not a bad idea really if the goal is to attract and keep new economic development. The council decided to retain the board for now, ask the board to weigh in soon on changes proposed to the plan and consider reducing the number of members so a quorum would be met.  So, for now the Economic Development Plan is on hold to be taken up sometime in June.  Let’s hope this isn’t just another plan that becomes a shelf decoration.

Come fly with me or fly away
The aviation advisory board also has vacancies and hasn’t met for a while.  It is made up of airport users. Looks like it will continue, and there was speculation that a board is necessary for the city to be eligible for FAA grants.  This has not been confirmed yet but is being researched by the city.  Mayor Johnson stated she had members she wanted to appoint but wanted to wait until the council decided on the fate of both boards.

And now for some real fun
Oh where to begin?  How about with a list and then some very brief summarizations of all things important to Palmer residents and businesses?
  • Sidewalk & Roving (hmmm roving where?) Vendors
  • Sales Tax code clarification and adaptation (Who gets the money?)
  • Palmer Business License code (Who’s the enforcer? What are we enforcing?)
Needless to say, the above items are important, somewhat contentious and quite complicated.
The city clerk advised the council that the sidewalk vendor code should be repealed due to way too many hoops to jump through (clown license?) and only 1 vendor has accomplished this.  It seems that most vendors really like to locate at the Palmer Depot which is not city property but owned by the Alaska railroad and that adds another hoop to the process.  Questions and discussion concerning downtown merchants moving onto sidewalks in front of their shops, acquiring an encroachment permit if you locate in the right of way, how wide is your part of the sidewalk and other items complicate and create an unfriendly business environment.  Should there be special event license options?  The city manager stated he wants to see a business friendly ordinance that is easier for staff.  Simplify, simplify, simplify was his mantra.
And now for roving vendors working the Palmer downtown area.  Yes, it was confirmed there are some but is it necessary to set size standards for carts or cars or trucks or require insurance? Is auto insurance enough?  Okay, just a brief observation about size of carts etc. How about a roving vendor pulling a semi-sized tractor-trailer around town with items to sell?  Seems some thought needs to be given to this.

Who gets the money?
Sales tax revenue accounts for over half of total general fund revenues in Palmer.  Services such as City Hall, the Police & Fire Dept, the library, public works, snow removal, road maintenance, summer flowers & gardens, MTA Event center, building & code compliance dept. and the Visitor Information Center & Museum are supported and funded by the sales tax.  The current code leaves too much to interpretation and is difficult for staff to work with not to mention the issue of fairness and equitability to all parties.  So, this can of worms is now open and will be the topic of work and discussion throughout 2012 by the council in upcoming meetings along with streamlining the filing requirements for businesses when they hand over the sales tax they collect.  When will Palmer join the 21st century and have online payments for most things and for sales tax collection?  Sounds like the Finance Dept. needs to upgrade their financial software.   A council member asked staff to do some homework and bring back numbers on businesses and what categories they fall under for gross revenue before determining categories for easier filing.  And then there is the requirement to fill out paperwork each month when a business collects no revenue and did you know that if you don’t it is a $25 fine?  Whoa, better pay attention.  Council and audience discussion centered on way too many options.

Remember, you get what you pay for! 
It would be nice to have snow removed from sidewalks again, especially after experiencing a long and snowy winter.

License to operate in the only walkable city in the borough
Yes, you have to have a Palmer Business license to operate in the city.  But…do you really need to have the city determine if you have a business license from the State of Alaska, the Mat Su Borough, Wasilla or Houston?  Yes, even Houston AK requires one.    Items like State Fair vendors using another vendor’s license, is the fee too much or too little, penalties for failure to apply and should there be a biennial business license option?  The council will definitely need to work on this one for a while.

Whew!  No way to tell you everything that was discussed.  You would be dizzy with the possibilities, the ramblings and noise from everyone’s head.  It was a refreshing though long meeting.  Everyone was civil, friendly, thoughtful and respectful and had some good ideas.  Do yourself a favor and get over to Palmer’s council meetings.  Participate and get to know the council and residents that engage in their local government business.  If you don’t pay attention, you may become one of the great uninformed and miss an opportunity to weigh in on important issues.  The Sales Tax, licensing and permitting discussions will be on the docket for the next year.  So, be there, and if you don’t care you’ve got nothing to complain about.

*above submitted by citizen lobbyist correspondent..

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