The Palmer City Council voted down an action memorandum on Tuesday night to direct city manager John Moosey to enter into an agreement with Resource Data Inc., on a feasibility study for what it would take for the city of Palmer to run a by-mail election in October.
Concerns over the safety of voters attending polling locations in person this fall amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in local governing bodies to examine what it would take to reformat elections to take place in the home. The action memorandum failed by a 4-3 vote with Councilmen Steve Carrington, Richard Best, Deputy Mayor Linda Combs and Mayor Edna DeVries voting against the measure with Councilwomen Julie Berberich, Sabrena Combs and Jill Valerius voting in favor.
“It’s very likely we can use COVID and CARES act funding for this it won’t cost us money but it will give us some insight as to what our options, whether or not even some sort of a vote from home is an option so I think in doing our diligence as a council that we explore this as an option,” said Valerius.
The measure was voted on in May and not approved by the council then, but Berberich felt that a feasibility study for voting from home deserved a second look.
“I felt like the vote that we had in May was not really a vote on whether or not we should approve of a feasibility study, but more of a vote on how people felt about the idea of alternative methods of voting and I really feel like we as a council need to do our due diligence here and explore all these possibilities in light of the COVID pandemic and the fears and the threats of having polling places,” said Berberich.
Berberich noted the low voter turnout for last fall’s election in Palmer and said that she believes everyone on the council is in favor of increasing voter turnout. Berberich also stressed how AM 20-006 was only for a feasibility study, and did not set in stone the council’s intent to conduct a vote by mail election.
“I’m wondering why we’re talking about a study at this time when we have quite a few issues that need to be faced within our community and within our state, so I’m not going to be able to support this and if that makes me biased, I guess I’m biased,” said Deputy Mayor Linda Combs. “We already have a system and it does work. You can go vote in person.”
Council members opposing AM 20-006 for the feasibility study also called into question Resource Data Inc., who aided the Municipality of Anchorage in their by-mail election conducted in May and are consulting with the Kenai Peninsula Borough currently.
“To me a feasibility study would be something that would be maybe a bit more neutral. This is coming from people that are actively pushing this and I guess I’m a little more reluctant,” said Carrington.
“We do have an educated populous and they are smart enough to request an absentee ballot so that opportunity is already there so it’s disingenuous to paint the picture that due to COVID that people are going to be at risk to vote.That’s shameful,” said Best. “To even have the discussion to expend more money to ask the question that we already all know in our heart anyhow that the opportunities are there, we have multiple ways to vote and it’s a civic duty that many of us are very proud to participate in.”
Moosey, the newly minted Palmer manager updated the council on the CARES act funding, a decision that will be delayed until July 14. Moosey stated that the city of Palmer received $3,926,688 on June 15 and expects two additional payments of approximately $1.8 million. Under the current guidelines, the monies must be used by Dec. 30 of this year or returned, but Moosey noted two Senate bills sponsored by Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Sen. Dan Sullivan that could amend the restrictions for municipalities to spend the money. Moosey noted that Senate Bill 3638 has been referred to the Senate Appropriation Committee and remained hopeful that guidelines could change.
“We want to get the money into the hands of our small businesses as soon as possible,” said Moosey. “For the city council meeting on July 14 there will be some action regarding COVID. If we have to do that with the financing as far as signatories we will do that at at that time.”
Moosey said that he anticipates that the city of Palmer will lose $1 million in sales taxes during the pandemic and detailed the application for grants that would both open and close on July 20 and be issued on a first come first serve basis. Moosey anticipates $3 million of the CARES act monies to be distributed to small businesses through the grant program with another $750,000 being granted to nonprofits. Businesses that show a 10 percent decline during the months of March, April and May would be eligible for up to $10,000.
Moosey also updated the council on the odors emanating from the Wastewater Treatment Plant near Outer Springer Loop. Moosey said that dredging of the ponds are underway for the first time in a decade, and that moving forward the staff will dredge the ponds yearly.
“This is really the first step of an annual maintenance program. We plan on doing this annually,” said Moosey. “The good news is we’re cleaning this out and it will get better the bad news is it’s no fun when we’re cleaning.”
The Council unanimously passed Action Memorandum 20-049 to issue a statement of non-objection for the sale of the liquor license at the Palmer Bar to Wesley Artz and Sherman Lgifgr.
The Council had been scheduled to discuss a code of ethics and CARES funding in a committee on the whole, but following a motion from Councilman Best that passed unanimously, both discussions have been postponed until the July 14 council meeting.
The Council unanimously passed Ordinance 20-006 which amended the zoning map to designate Tract 5 in the Cedar Hills Subdivision from Commercial Limited the Public Use for the construction of an Emergency Services building. DeVries moved to amend the ordinance to require necessary buffers for mitigation of light and noise and orient the building in a way that it provides safe access to the Glenn Highway. Mat-Su Borough Department of Emergency Services Director Ken Barkley and MSB Land Management Agent Nancy Cameron presented to the Council.