The Sitka Assembly delayed action last night on a request from city officials to help them recoup the cost of administering grants.
In addition to grants made to city departments, the City of Sitka acts as a pass-through agency for grants to a number of local agencies. The funder gives the money to the city which then disburses it to the organization or department that won the grant.
City Finance Director Jay Sweeney has told the Assembly that administering them has a cost — in time and materials — and asked the Assembly for a way to recoup that money.
The proposal before the Assembly last night would have asked for 5 percent of the grant amount or $500, whichever is higher. It also set a $6,000 ceiling on the amount that could be collected.
Bob Medinger is executive director of the Sitka Historical Society and Museum. He was among the members of the public expressing concern about the plan. He said recouping costs is a responsible thing to do, but also said the amount should reflect the actual costs incurred by the city.
“In our case, we’d be asked to put in up to $800 for that grant. But my estimate of 8 to 10 hours, it would only cost the city $300 to administrate it,” Medinger said. “So you’re doubling or tripling what it’s really costing you at our expense.”
And in an unusual turn of events, another city department head stepped forward to speak against the proposal. Chris Brewton is director of the city’s electrical department, which has large grants, including $50 million for expanding the Blue Lake hydro project.
“The large grants that we administer, there are cost-recovery mechanisms in the grant itself to pay for the administration,” Brewton said. “So I’m not real keen on the idea of paying again for support to administer these grants.”
Brewton also said departments like his, which operate on funds from rate-payers, already pay fees to the city’s general fund every year for support services.
Assembly members discussed the issue for about an hour. They all seemed in agreement with the philosophy that the city needed a way to make up for the money it spends in staff time to administer grants.
But they disagreed widely on the methodology, and instructed Sweeney and Municipal Administrator Jim Dinley to come back at a future meeting with some changes based on their comments.
Dinley expressed frustration.
“It’s kind of hard to guess what you’re looking for,” Dinley said. “You went from a percentage to a fixed dollar to don’t charge nonprofits. Jay (Sweeney) and I are going to go in tomorrow and look at each other and say ‘Was it really worth the last three days of compiling all this information,’ knowing we’re going to come in here and you’re going to say ‘Give us some more data.’ I’m not sure what you’re looking for.”
That brought a sharp response from Phyllis Hackett, who said the Assembly didn’t ask for the proposal, and that Tuesday was their first chance to discuss it and involve the public.
“I’m frustrated by hearing what you’ve said, because I think it is belittling – or maybe belittling is the wrong word – but it does not necessarily sound like it’s respecting our process, and the process of the public being able to come in and comment on these things too and being allowed to be heard,” Hackett said.
In the end, the Assembly decided to postpone the proposal to recoup grant administration costs. It’s scheduled to come back to the Assembly sometime before February.