Sitka | Sitkans will likely get a break on sales taxes this year, after the Assembly shied away from suggestions to reduce or move its annual sales tax holiday.

At its last meeting, Assembly members pointed to the city’s difficult finances and suggested the traditional Thanksgiving weekend sales tax holiday might move to a different weekend or get reduced to just one day.

There were four proposals, labeled items K through N, on the agenda at the Assembly’s regular meeting last night, and in the end, they went for the status quo – a two-day sales tax holiday on the Friday and Saturday following Thanksgiving.

Assembly member Terry Blake, who joined the meeting by phone, said the alternative proposals were unfair to downtown business owners.

“I really think that we should not be so chintzy to our business owners downtown,” Blake said. “We should be more supportive. And I won’t support any of these single days. I’m only in support of N, the 25th and 26th. I think we should really think about the way we’re treating our business owners if we try these stunts.”

Assembly member Mim McConnell, also joining the meeting by phone, sponsored the four proposals along with Pete Esquiro. She said she brought the ideas forward after hearing Assembly members express concern at the last meeting about the budget.

“This is another one of those things that’s a hard decision,” McConnell said. “What’s the best thing for our budget? Can we do what we’ve been doing in the more recent years with a sales tax holiday? Can we afford to do that?”

The final version – the two-day tax holiday on Thanksgiving weekend – received unanimous support from the Assembly. It will require another reading to become official. That will happen at the Assembly’s next meeting, which is scheduled for November 15.

Library can apply for grant

A project to expand Kettleson Memorial Library took a small but crucial step forward last night. The Sitka Assembly narrowly gave permission for the library to apply for a state grant. The state money would cover half of the estimated $10 million dollars needed to double the size of the library.

Hugh Bevan is a member of the volunteer group studying the feasibility of expanding the library. He said the project would replace an aging facility that’s going to have a lot of maintenance needs in the years to come. Plus, Bevan said it could bring economic benefit to Sitka.

“The construction estimate is $6.7 million,” Bevan said. “That would employ 20 to 30 people, and it’s pretty easy to spin off $150,000 in sales tax revenue. So there’s a strong economic development aspect to projects like this.”

A study by the Foraker Group compared statistics at Kettleson to other libraries around the state. The Noel Wien library in Fairbanks serves a population about 10 times that of Sitka. Yet Sitka has more registered borrowers at the library than residents in town. Sitka has a larger collection per capita than Fairbanks, and a larger circulation. And the library in Fairbanks — 10 times the size of Sitka’s — only gets twice as many people as Sitka. But Martha Schoenthal of the Foraker Group said she found one statistic stood out above the rest.

“Your library staff maintain 71 hours per week – open hours – and they do it with 7.9 FTEs, or full-time employee equivalents,” Schoenthal said. “And we compare that to Noel Wien which is open 64 hours a week with a staff of 44 people. So I would say your library staff is giving you superb value for money.”

Still, some Assembly members had their doubts about whether to give the library permission to apply for the state grant. Assembly member Thor Christianson wondered where the city’s share – more than $4 million dollars – would come from.

“I don’t feel comfortable applying for a grant that we know we don’t have the match for,” Christianson said. “And I don’t see where we’re going to get it.”

Assembly member Phyllis Hackett participated in the feasibility study on the library. She says the vote Tuesday night wouldn’t commit the Assembly to spending any money, but would simply allow the Library to ask the state to cover half the bill.

“I’m not convinced that we will end up with a new library at the end, but I am convinced that if we don’t take this step we won’t even get the chance to try,” she said.

Mayor Cheryl Westover suggested trying again next year for the money. But the consultants working on the project said it’s uncertain whether the state grant program will exist next year, and that by then, construction costs will have gone up about 3 or 4 percent.

In the end, the Assembly gave the library the go-ahead to apply for the grant on a vote of 4 to 3. Hackett, Christianson, Mike Reif, and Mim McConnell voted yes. Westover, Pete Esquiro and Terry Blake voted no.

If the grant is awarded, the matter will come back before the Assembly, which must decide whether to accept the grant. The matter could also go to a public vote to determine whether to fund the city’s portion of the project.

At the same time, the city is working on a separate project to renovate Centennial Hall. Two public meetings on that project take place today (Wednesday) at noon and at 7 p.m. at Centennial Hall.