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A breakdown of Unalaska's 2021 ballot questions

Unalaska city hall sept 2021
Theo Greenly
Unalaska's Municipal Election is Oct. 5. Polls are open at City Hall from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

It’s election season in Unalaska. On Oct. 5, locals will head to the polls to vote on three ballot questions, as well as for officials on both the City Council and the school board.

KUCB reporters Theo Greenly and Hope McKenney sat down to discuss the ballot questions.


Theo Greenly: There are three Ballot Questions that Unalaskans will be voting on this year. And all three are simple ‘Yes' / 'No’ questions. The first two ballot measures are nearly identical. They address how much power the city should have in a declared epidemic disaster. The third ballot question asks residents if the city should raise taxes — specifically as a way to stabilize rising utility costs.

Hope McKenney: Okay, so let's start then by talking about the first two ballot measures.

Greenly: Right, so Ballot Question 1 and Ballot Question 2 are nearly identical. They both ask if there should be new limits on the amount of power the city has during an epidemic. The first one focuses on the City Council and City Manager. The second one is the Director of Emergency Preparedness, which means basically the City Manager. Those questions were sponsored through a citizen petition. There are two main sponsors of the petition: Jeff Manns and Joe Henning. They're both longtime residents of Unalaska. And they got enough signatures to get the questions onto the ballot.

McKenney: So what exactly do these first two questions ask Unalaskans?

Greenly: The questions ask the voter if they want to amend the city's Code of Ordinances, which is basically the laws that outline the powers and duties of the city. And if the questions were approved, they would place new limits on the kind of power the city has during an epidemic. Here's Mann explaining why they wanted to get these on the ballot.

Jeff Manns: Well, we felt that essentially what the city council was doing, given the circumstances, is that they were using an old ordinance for their emergency powers, that was, I don't want to say outdated, but it allowed them to strip individuals of their private rights.

McKenney: So we're talking about the kinds of things we've seen over the past year and a half, like mask mandates and lockdowns, right?

Greenly: Basically, yes. The proposed amendments list out eight specific things the city would no longer be able to impose. And yeah, they include things like mask mandates and limiting public capacity in private businesses. So you know, bars and restaurants — also churches — that kind of thing, without a court order. And that’s kind of the key. The sponsors of the bill say it’s not really so much about the mask mandates, per se, that really it’s about due process.

McKenney: So you're saying “without a court order.” How would that work, exactly?

Greenly: Well, yeah, that's kind of what the city is asking itself. So the City Attorney, Sam Severin, says that courts don't usually address the types of things like mask mandates. And the city says that the ballot initiatives don't really clearly outline a clear process for how this would all work. I asked this same question to City Manager Erin Reinders.

Erin Reinders: This is how it would flow, I think. We would continue making recommendations to City Council on protective measures. If council wants to continue adopting those, they would adopt them. And then… I believe, then we'd work through the process in the court system to try to identify what actually is required for those court orders. And then the resolution that council has passed would be able to be enforced.

Greenly: So basically, this is untrod territory. There are a lot of unknowns. But what would likely happen is that, yes, the city could still try to put these restrictions in place, but there would be an additional step and it would probably slow the process down.

McKenney: Okay, so overall, what would it mean to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on these first two ballot questions, just lay that out.

Greenly: Voting ‘Yes’ basically is a vote to make it harder, or to limit the city from doing things like requiring masks or limiting capacity in privately-owned businesses without a court order. And voting ‘No’ is a vote to basically leave things as they are and let the city continue under its current ability to order things like mask mandates during a declared disaster emergency.

McKenney: Alright, so those are the first two ballot questions. What about the third one? I know this is a tax hike. Tell me a little bit about it.

Greenly: Right,so this one originated at City Hall. What it asks is if Unalaska should raise its sales tax by 1.5% in order to offset utility rates.

McKenney: Okay, so how is raising the sales tax supposed to stabilize utility rates?

Greenly: Remember that the city owns and operates the utilities in Unalaska. Every three or four years, city staff goes through this rate study with a consultant — so, you know, water, wastewater, solid waste electric — and they look at the revenue requirements, you know, how much money the city needs to bring in for operating costs and for capital projects, like Captains Bay, that kind of thing.

McKenney: And this year, they actually raised utility rates.

Greenly: Right, exactly. And by quite a bit. Still, though, they're still not meeting the city's revenue goals. They balance their revenue to debt. And even with the utility increases, they fall short of their goal. The city says that basically, instead of, you know, raising utility rates more, which really would hit Unalaska ratepayers quite hard, what they want to do is create this fund that would offset those rising utility rates. And the reason for that is that not only Unalaska residents pay taxes, pay sales tax. We get a lot of visitors coming in, you know, industry, and they come in and spend money and leave, but they're still benefiting from our utilities. So the idea, according to the city, is that this would kind of spread that burden out among non-residents as well. And that way, Unalaska ratepayers wouldn't just get hit by these increasingly high utility bills.

McKenney: And so to clarify, the city would be creating a special fund that would then be used to offset these utility costs for locals.

Greenly: Right, exactly. So our current tax rate is 3% sales tax. But what this ballot question asks is, should it be raised to 4.5%, and that entire 1.5% increase, all of that revenue would go into this special fund that would then be used to offset those rising utility costs.

McKenney: Okay, so just break it down. What would a ‘Yes’ vote versus a ‘No’ vote mean on this third ballot measure?

Greenly: A ‘Yes’ vote is a vote to raise the sales tax from 3% to 4.5% to create a fund to offset rising utility costs, and a ‘No’ vote is to keep the sales tax where it is at 3%.

McKenney: All right, well, thanks for talking to me, Theo.

Greenly: Yeah, my pleasure. Thank you.

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  • Polls are open at City Hall from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

    Early voting is available in person at City Hall, Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. up until Election Day.

    You can also vote by mail, email or fax if you apply by Oct. 1.

    If you can’t make it in person, due to illness or physical disability, you can appoint a representative to pick up a ballot for you.

    For more information, call the City Clerk at 581-1251.

    Here’s what’s on the ballot

    Unalaskans will vote for City Council members, school board members and three ballot measures.
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  • Unalaskans will be voting on three ballot measures. The first two ballot questions have to do with how much authority the city has during an epidemic.The third question asks whether the City of Unalaska should raise its sales tax from 3% to 4.5% to offset rising utility costs. Click here for details on the individual measures.