Local News

‘Tough choices’ as Assembly weighs cuts

Sitka’s Assembly took its first crack at the city budget on Thursday night. The budget makes $1.2 million in cuts. Department heads and community leaders said very few of the cuts will go unnoticed.

Municipal Administrator Jim Dinley told the Assembly that his staff worked hard to figure out which cuts to make.

“We are well aware that once we hand you the budget, it becomes the Assembly’s budget to work,” he said. “Our comment, to finish on that one, is that you are going to face some very tough choices.”

Those tough choices include the first layoffs in city history. Under the plan, the parks and recreation manager and a part-time customer service rep at city hall would lose their jobs.

The budget also calls for reductions in hours for city facilities, like the library and the counter at city hall where people pay utility bills. It scales back of city services, including the summertime groundskeepers known as grasshoppers, street paving and other upkeep.

It’s a common story these days among local governments: expenses are going up, and the money coming in is going down. In Sitka’s case, the city has to start making major repairs to aging roads and buildings. But at the same time, federal and state sources of funding are decreasing, and voters have refused the city’s request to raise taxes.

City department heads told the Assembly that losing anything will be painful, giving exhaustive detail about how duties will be combined, and how some services will be delayed or eliminated.

The police department will lose two positions, which are vacant now and just won’t be filled. Chief Sheldon Schmitt says those cuts come after reductions to the force in 2010.

“I worry about us having a major incident like the drill we had the other night and not having enough folks around to cover it,” Schmitt said. “I’ll do everything I can not to do that. But we’ve cut five people, and you can’t cut that many people without making some reductions.”

On to parks and recreation. Public Works Director Michael Harmon says he would absorb much of the work done by the department’s manager. Keeping up with Sitka’s busy recreational community would be a challenge.

“Eleven different activities and seven different school teams, and all those exercises going on – we’d really struggle to do that without this position.”

And then there’s the matter of keeping up with various public users ranging from remote control airplane operators to Frisbee golfers to bicycling groups and onward. Long-range planning would be hampered, as would support to the parks and recreation committee and the tree and landscape committee.

Kettleson Memorial Library Director Sarah Bell painted a similar picture for her department. She says reducing the hours – by about one hour a day – could ultimately result in losing a position. Right now, the library is open 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. weekdays and 1 p.m. to 9 p.m. on weekends.

“We do have high hours of access compared to many other libraries, but that’s something we should be really proud of,” she said. “We live in a place that’s really isolated. We live in a place where there aren’t malls and lots of other places for people to go and be, where they don’t have to spend money. And I think we serve our population really well.”

Bell said in tough economic times, the library becomes more important – for example, offering services like Internet access and job search help to people who can’t afford computers.

Assembly member Phyllis Hackett wanted city officials to consider sending cruise ship tax money to support the groundskeepers and the library. The money must be used for the direct benefit of cruise passengers. Hackett argued that a good-looking community certainly is to their benefit, as is the library. Passengers and crew from the ships that visit Sitka each summer sometimes use the library for Internet access or as a visitors’ center of sorts. Bell said many ship crew members even have borrowing privileges.

The budget is hundreds of pages thick and is not posted online. A public review copy is available at Kettleson Memorial Library. You can weigh in by e-mailing the Assembly, or by testifying at an upcoming work session or meeting. The schedule is below:

Schedule

May 3: Work session – 6 p.m. Centennial Hall – Enterprise funds (electric, water, waste water, trash, harbor, airport, marine service center, Sawmill Cove Industrial Park)
May 10: Work session – 6 p.m. Centennial Hall – Internal funds (MIS, central garage, building maintenance)
May 22: 1st reading of the budget ordinance – 6 p.m. Centennial Hall*
June 12: 2nd and final reading of the budget ordinance – 6 p.m. Centennial Hall*

*Live coverage planned on KCAW.

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