Assemblymen Tristan Guevin and Bob Potrzuski suggested the city create a program to subsidize the utility bills of low-income homeowners. The proposal failed by a vote of 4-2 last night (06-14-16). (Photo from slgckgc, Flickr Creative Commons)

The Sitka Assembly voted down an ordinance last night (6-14-16) to subsidize the utility bills of low income Sitkans. The majority said that instead of subsidies, they’d rather see the city create a fund where Sitkans can donate to the Salvation Army, which already manages a utility assistance program. Bill sponsor Tristan Guevin said he’d still like to city do more to help those most in need.

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Oh, utility bills. They come every month, charging for electricity, water, garbage collection, and sewer services. For some in Sitka, paying isn’t a problem. For others, it’s a snowballing issue. In January, the city’s amount of uncollected debt for past-due utility bills was $400,000.

So, Assemblymen Tristan Guevin and Bob Potrzuski suggested the city create a program where qualifying low-income households can get a monthly subsidy on their bill. Their ordinance was approved on first reading last meeting (5-24-16), but this time around, even co-sponsor Potrzuski had reservations.

Potrzuski primarily wondered how the city would pay for the program, which would cost $200,000. “We should look at where we’re taking the money from. I’m not in favor at this point of raising rates on one group of people to go to another group of people. This is not the climate, in my mind, to do that,” he said.

The other option, printed in the Assembly packet, was to provide a $200,000 grant from Southeast Economic Development Fund to pilot the program for one year. The fund’s current balance is $1.5 million. But that didn’t sit well with Assemblyman Matthew Hunter.

“I cannot see taking money out of our economic development fund that is not going to be replaced for a one-time infusion to a handful…actually it would be about 1 in 6 or 1 in 7 Sitkans,” Hunter said. “As far as I know, we have somewhere around 15 to 16 percent of our citizens who are on food stamps. That was an amazing statistic for me to see.”

Under the program, qualifying households include those who already qualify for public assistance from the state, as well programs run by Sitka Tribe of Alaska, Tlingit and Haida Central Council, SEARHC, and the Sitka School District’s for free-and-reduced lunch.

Potrzuski said he had a long talk with his son, freshly graduated from college, about what the city owes those citizens struggling to pay. He said, “I think the heart of this ordinance is, ‘Should the city of Sitka be in the business of, for lack of a better term, welfare for folks?’”

For bill co-sponsor Tristan Guevin, the answer was a resounding yes. He stated that nearly a quarter of Sitka households making under $35,000 or less a year and that, given the state’s fiscal crisis, a program like this is timely.

“When things get tough, I think that is the time to put forward those kind of programs because the people who are impacted are those who are struggling, those who are right at that median or right below. Those are the people impacted by our economic downturn,” Guevin said.

The Assembly is pursuing other options to keep household costs down. This spring, they voted to transfer $1.6 million. Electric rates will still increase – 5% this year – and water and wastewater by 1%.

There may soon be an option for Sitkans paying their bills to automatically donate a little extra to the Sitka-branch of the Salvation Army, which already runs a utility assistance program. City IT Director Ron Duvall said the program hasn’t gotten off the ground, but is in testing mode.

Mayor Mim McConnell thought it best to give the donation option a chance. “Utilities are low in the summer. Let’s get this other one rolled out and see how the public responds,” she told the Assembly.

Guevin commented that 36% of students qualify for free-and-reduced lunch. For him, it’s an indication that income inequality in Sitka can’t be solved with donations. “I really hope that the donations out of the kindness of our heart will do the job. But I doubt it, I guess, I don’t see that happening,” Guevin said. “You know…me as a white, middle class male, I have had a lot of privilege. And I am where I am and I’m making the income I’m making because of those privileges. I think it’s important as a society to recognize that privilege. If this fails, I hope we’ll keep working at it and come up with something that works.”

Guevin added that he wanted Sitka to have a diverse community, where people could live regardless of how much money they make. A lot of Assembly members were nodding their heads at this point, agreeing with the spirit of the ordinance and the problems it identifies, but not its proposed solution.

The Assembly voted down the utility subsidization program by a vote of 4-2, with Potrzuski and Guevin voting for. Assemblymen Ben Miyasato was absent.