As local governments brace for another round of state budget cuts next spring, Sitka is looking to its residents for answers about how to best raise revenues and decrease spending. A Citizen’s Task Force has been meeting for several months to come up with a strategy to maintain the community’s basic services, while keeping taxes equitable. With their first report to the Sitka assembly in 3 weeks, the Citizens’ Task Force has some way to go before reaching consensus.
The next meeting of the Citizens’ Task Force on City Services, Revenues, and Fees will be at 6 PM on Monday January 4 in the Sealing Cove Business Center — which is serving as a substitute meeting location for all government activity until renovations on the Centennial Building are completed. The meetings are open to the public. There are usually two opportunities to speak under “persons to be heard.” The Task Force will report to the assembly at 5 PM Tuesday, January 26, on the campus of the University of Alaska Southeast.
Rob Allen chairs the Citizens’ Task Force. A year ago, Allen dropped into the CEO’s chair at Sitka Community Hospital and pulled that institution out of a nose dive.
The City of Sitka isn’t in nearly as bad shape, but some hard choices are coming. The task force is charged with deciding which core services Sitka should maintain, how to pay for them, how to pay for them equitably and sustainably, and bringing the public on board.
Allen says the task force is three-for-four.
“I do feel we’re making pretty good progress on the first three, but getting the citizens’ engagement has been a bit more of a challenge.”
Citizens — at least those who’ve been coming to the task force’s semi-monthly meetings — don’t like to hear about higher taxes, which are almost certainly going to be a part of the final plan. Shirley Robards, speaking from the public at the last meeting on December 21, said she was disgusted that the city was contemplating raising taxes on senior citizens. A long-time business owner, she even wondered why the city was renting space at the Sealing Cove Business Center for these meetings. Among numerous other complaints.
“And I can tell you right now that I barely get paid at Stereo North because the money’s not there. The business is not there. I think Amazon should be paying sales tax. You should see the boxes that come in. They’re using our roads.”
But Allen says affordability is very much on the minds of the task force. Especially for young families, and those living on fixed incomes.
“Making some progress on that. Looking at some ideas at to what we can do to offer relief for certain segments of the community, as we’re coming up with a new way forward.”
One idea the task force has investigated is repealing the sales tax on groceries — which would cost the city an estimated $1.6-million. To cover it, Sitkan would have to vote to raise the property tax by one mill, or a tenth of a percent.
For some on the task force, even that is too much. Member Mary Magnuson said she fears “taxing Sitkans to death.” She prefers cutting government spending.
“We’re going to have to revert to being a small town. That’s something that we haven’t even talked about. We have big-city services here, and we’re not a big city.”
Sitka is not a big city — it just lives like one. Every service, from health care to waste water, is city-owned and self-contained on this island. For many years, Rob Allen made his living running his family’s tour company and ship-building business. He looks at Sitka through that lens.
“It’s basically a small business, because it also owns and operates the electric utility, which in most places is either a private company or some kind of non-profit entity. Also, the sewer and water, and the harbors as well. These are all enterprise funds that a typical small government would not have to deal with or worry about.”
Sitka is dealing with all those things, but it’s also progressive about civic well-being and quality of life. The arts are strong here, and the library has emerged as an important civic gathering space and de-facto cultural center. Sitka has bonded, fund-raised, and borrowed to build a beautiful performing arts space, and soon will be moving into a dramatically expanded library, and completely renovated Harrigan Centennial Hall.
Task force member Dyan Bessette thought amenities on this scale, and much smaller — bike racks shaped like fish, for instance — were costing Sitkans more than they were worth.
“It’s time to get real. Because so far, we haven’t been. We’re in La-La Land as far as all the beautiful things we’re adding to Sitka to make it pleasing to tourists and for locals. Well, we’re still going to lose in the long run, or even in the short run.”
So whatever the message is it will be mixed, when the Citizens’ Task Force reports to the assembly on January 26. And it could be quite original. Jay Sweeney, Sitka’s chief administrative officer, says there isn’t any blueprint for Sitka to follow.
“Within the state of Alaska there is no other municipality that has the structure that Sitka has. There are some that are close: Juneau is close, but they have have a private electric company. If you take a look at what happens in Sitka, it’s the most comprehensive local government providing the broadest array of services. I’ve told folks that Sitka performs elements that are normally provided by a state government in other places — which is sales tax. It performs elements that are performed by a county government in other places — property tax. And then operates every utility that is present within the municipality. And that’s almost an unheard of organizational structure anywhere in the country.”
And it may require an unheard of level of cooperation from the public to make it happen. Sitka’s property tax can’t be raised, except by a vote of the people. Task force members have referred to their plan tentatively as “a grand bargain,” which would be packaged with a promise to hold down other city revenues. Whether this bargain succeeds could boil down to how willing Sitkans are to make a deal.