The main item on the Sitka Assembly’s agenda Monday night (11-10-14) was a discussion of the strategic planning commission. This commission was originally created to help guide the assembly on major decisions, like how Sitka will fund city services as state and federal aid declines.
But so far, the commission hasn’t quite gotten off the ground.
Right now, the strategic planning commission doesn’t exist: it’s supposed to be made up of five members of the public, but so far the city has only received one application.
According to the ordinance establishing the commission, its members would advise the assembly on “developing, planning and implementing strategic and planning priorities.”
If your eyes just glazed over, well, about half the assembly was right there with you.
But the commission could play a big role in key decisions affecting the city: like whether to raise taxes, or what services to cut.
Mayor Mim McConnell proposed asking the commission to come up with a list of ways for the city to generate more revenue.
“More money is needed for city services and infrastructure, than is coming in,” she said. “And so the assembly, I think, is at a point where we need to address what our options are. What do we want to do? Do we want to make cuts, or do we want to increase revenue somehow? If we want to increase revenue, how do we want to do do that? If we want to make cuts, how do we do that? And so in order to have any kind of an informed discussion we need to get all the facts.”
This idea had come out of the assembly’s debate, this summer and fall, over whether to impose a motor vehicle registration fee to pay for the city’s backlog of road maintenance.
Ultimately a majority decided they wanted more information before pulling the trigger on any particular new tax. Even if they weren’t sure quite how to raise the money, though, the assembly did seem united in the belief that some form of new revenue was necessary.
City Administrator Mark Gorman emphasized that point on Monday night. Looking ahead to the next year, he said, in the best case scenario the city will have no revenue shortfall. In the worst case scenario, the city might be looking at a million-dollar gap.
“And a lot of this is tied into what’s going to be happening at the state and federal level,” Gorman said. “And as we all know, the price of oil is declining very rapidly, so I think we’re not going to be looking at the best case scenario. So we will be having to make economies in this next budget cycle.”
But the assembly has added two new members since it last had this discussion, with different ideas on how to proceed. Newly elected assembly member Tristan Guevin said he’d like to see a larger planning process before rushing to raise revenue.
“For me, I think, when you start to look first at money, and ways to generate revenue, you can get yourself into trouble, and create a lot of pitfalls,” Guevin said. “That typical chasing the money problem, not necessarily evaluating what our current assets are and how we might be able to use those better.”
Guevin said he’d like to see the city revise its comprehensive plan, a much larger document last updated in 2007.
McConnell said that updating the comprehensive plan is a good goal, but a big process, requiring major community input over the course of a year.
“I’m a little concerned about talking about updating the comprehensive plan before we talk about our budget needs that we’re going to be faced with next spring,” McConnell said.
In the end, planning for the strategic planning commission turned out to be too amorphous a discussion for the assembly table.
Gorman suggested the assembly wait to see recommendations from Municipal Solutions, an outside contractor currently looking at ways to streamline city operations. That report is expected to be finished before the end of the year.
In the meantime, the strategic planning commission is still looking for volunteers.