EXTENDED AUDIO: Assembly Forum, Part 1

EXTENDED AUDIO: Assembly Forum, Part 2

This year’s race for three Sitka Assembly seats includes just three names on the ballot, but also two people who are hoping voters will PUT them on the ballot.

Phyllis Hackett and Gary Paxton are running as write-in candidates. Printed on the ballot will be the names of Pete Esquiro, Mike Reif and Andrew Traugutt. Paxton was out of town Tuesday, but the other four took listener questions during an on-air forum at Raven Radio.

Pete Esquiro, Mike Reif, Andrew Traugutt, Phyllis Hackett and Gary Paxton represent an interesting mix of candidates: two incumbents, a previous Assembly member, a former city manager and a political newcomer.

They also represent a wide range of views, on a wide range of issues. First up, how to deal with the city’s energy crisis. Sitka’s hydropower generation plants at Blue Lake and Green Lake struggle during some parts of the year to keep up with demand. The city is raising the dam at Blue Lake and exploring a new hydro project at Takatz Lake.

Mike Reif, who served on the Assembly from 1991 until 1994, says he’s disappointed the city didn’t act on the crisis years ago.

“Some of the biggest steps it could have taken is obviously conservation-type steps,” Reif said. “And how do you promote conservation? You promote it with a rate structure … that is variable.”

The idea of variable rates – where people who use more power pay a higher rate than those who use less – is under consideration. As for generating more capacity, Phyllis Hackett says raising the Blue Lake dam must remain a top priority for the city. The feasibility of Takatz is less clear. That viewpoint puts her in agreement with Pete Esquiro:

“The jury is still out for me with respect to the Takatz Lake project,” he said. “That’s going to be an awfully big project up there. It’s going to be a very expensive project. And we’re going to have to continue moving in the development, more so.”

Many of the calls and e-mails that came in from listeners Tuesday night asked about the economy, and what candidates thought were the biggest economic issues facing Sitka.

“Lack of jobs,” says Andrew Traugutt. “I’m thinking that we need to have year-round jobs. During the fishing season, more people are employed, they’re spending  more money. Also at the same time, when the tourist season comes in, they come into town, doing a lot of purchasing, shopping – but in the off-season, the unemployment office gets rather busy.”

Traugutt used to judge unemployment claims for the State of Colorado; he says he’s visited the unemployment office here in Sitka to find out what the situation is. He says he’d like to see Sitka have more yearround jobs available.

Mike Reif and Pete Esquiro highlighted the important role that tourism plays in Sitka’s economy, and the need to attract more cruise ships to town. Phyllis Hackett said it’s hard to narrow down what the city’s biggest economic challenges are.

“We are really fortunate here in Sitka to have a diverse economy and I think that one of our challenges is to remember that diversity and help strengthen each of the industries across the board,” Hackett said. “It’s really hard to say one industry is more important than another, or one industry needs more attention than another.”

Hackett, long an advocate on the Assembly for city grants to nonprofits, added that the nonprofit sector is a major employer in the city, and that it should be included when the city looks at shoring up its economy.

Another caller asked if job growth was more important than things that should be considered sacred. Again, Pete Esquiro:

“That all has to be taken on a case-by-case basis, and each one of us as we’re faced with those kinds of decisions, have to decide to what degree we’re willing to sacrifice one thing over another,” Esquiro said. “It’s nothing I can generalize about.”

For individuals, a major part of the local economy is the money spent on a place to live. Sitka’s cost of living is higher, on average, than much of the state. According to 2009 data, Sitkans also pay a higher-than-average percentage of their household income in rent, and rent – rather than own their homes – at a higher rate, too.

In 2007, Sitka purchased an area known as the Benchlands for development, and to be able to sell affordable land to residents. Phyllis Hackett said the project is about to take a big step forward.

“There is definitely planning going on around the benchlands, and I believe the hope is for the first tract to be opened up for sale as early as this November.”

What’s happening at the Benchlands raises a broader question, about whether Sitka is too expensive a place for many people to live, and if so, what should be done to make it more affordable. Andrew Traugutt – who moved to Sitka in June of 2010 – said he and his wife had to find housing in a hurry.

“That became a real nightmare,” Traugutt said. “At any price, a rental seemed hard to find. I guess people in the Coast Guard, when they come up here with families, they’re running into the same kind of problem. Housing needs to improve availability, be it the cottage, or modular mobile home, or multi-unit apartments. They’re just not there.”

Reif said making housing more available and more affordable is an expensive proposition for the city, which he thinks should focus more on core services – police, fire, infrastructure.

“But the city can keep the general cost of living here reasonable,” he said. “Keep our utilities reasonable. Keep our taxes and so forth as reasonable as possible, so it’s affordable – the city doing what it does, and does it well.”

Hackett, on the other hand, said there are some new options on the way, but in the meantime, Sitka needs to look at the long-term future.

“We need to do some planning here in Sitka, and there’s a lot of people who tend to shy away from the idea of planning, but planning for affordable housing, and planning for lot sizes, and all the things that Mike is talking about, as well as the energy and as well as the federal cuts,” she said. “We need some really aggressive planning so that we’re able to take care of some of these issues, because they come up, and as soon as they come up is not the time to start thinking about how to solve them.”

Planning was on the mind of another caller, particularly, the city’s comprehensive plan – a guiding document designed to steer the city toward a vision, agreed upon by a broad spectrum of the community. The caller wanted to know if the candidates felt the Assembly should always stick to that plan, and if it should consider consulting with citizens for a major revision.

The answer, across the board, was yes, and sort of. Yes, that revisions should be considered, and sort of, in that the Assembly should refer to the plan, but not feel completely bound to it.

“The best comprehensive plans I’ve ever seen, whether it be for a business, an organization, or for a particular geographical area, are those that are truly living,” said Esquiro, adding that the plans need to be adaptable “both to the changing economic needs that the city or the group is facing, as well as to the actual physical, cultural, other needs of its citizenry.”

Andrew Traugutt compared the plan to a roadmap.

“You’re starting here, and this is the point you’re trying to get to, and as you travel along, there’s going to be more input, more issues developing, questions, detours,” Traugutt said. “It’s not written in stone. As you go along, you have to make adjustments.”

And voters have to make choices, which they’ll do on October 4th.