The Care-A-Vans are owned by Catholic Community Services, but fueled and mainained by the city — at a cost of $38,000. (Center for Community photo)

City support for paratransit and the Community Ride survived the Sitka assembly’s first round of budget cutting this week — but it will mean lower subsidies for residents who need help with their electric bills.

The Police Department will also be budgeted for one less officer.

The assembly on Thursday (3-9-17) held the first of four special meetings dedicated to balancing the city’s books.

Downloadable audio.

The assembly will have three more meetings devoted exclusively to the budget. The next, at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 16, will focus on the city’s enterprise funds.

In a nutshell, the city is tackling its $2 million General Fund budget shortfall next year like this: $700,000 in cuts, $700,000 in new revenues, and $700,000 from reserves.

Among those cuts were the $38,000 the city spends on fuel and maintenance for the paratransit vans operated by the Senior Center, which is run by Catholic Community Services. As part of its deal with CCS, the city owns and maintains the Senior Center Building, and takes care of the vans.

However, testimony from the public caused the assembly to reconsider. Resident Bob Purvis suffers from macular degeneration which has rendered him legally blind.

“Until you’ve experienced a loss of independence, you don’t really realize how serious that can be to your sense of well being. It was the Senior Center and the Care-a-Van that allowed me to maintain a sense of personal independence in this community. In fact it was the van that allowed me to come to this meeting this evening. I’m attending another meeting as soon as I’m finished here. It will be the van that takes me home.”

The Care-a-Van represents a situation the assembly will face over and over again as it considers next year’s budget. Restoring one cut means cutting something else, or dipping deeper into reserves.

First time assembly member Aaron Bean was clearly frustrated by the limited options.

“No one wants to do this. I mean, who would ever want to cut these services? I don’t. But I can also see it in another light. If there’s somewhere else — I would really like to see equal cuts somewhere else.”

The budget is prepared by the administration, which intentionally tries to limit the assembly’s choices to a few critical funding and policy decisions.

In this case, though, member Tristan Guevin thought there was a revenue solution in the senior sales tax exemption.

“By 2030 our population is projected to be 25-percent senior citizens. So that would be 25-percent of our population not paying sales tax, having an exemption on the first $150,000 of their home in terms of paying property tax. That’s really going to impact the city quite a bit. And I think in terms of equity, if someone’s over 65 and they’re making $150,000 a year, why should they be exempt from sales tax when a 30-year old family making $50,000 is not?”

Guevin said that he and member Bob Potrzuski were developing a plan to rev ise the senior sales tax exemption in a way that exempted only senior households with less than $76,000 of income for a couple, or $56,000 for an individual.

The increased revenue could cover the line item for the Care-a-Van.

But the idea got pushback from the public. This is former mayor Fred Reeder.

“I don’t think a means testing is the way to go. But I think you can tweak the senior sales tax exemption. A policy statement from the assembly that says, We support seniors who want to reside in Sitka year-round. If you start with that premise. It leads you into a very easy way to manage it.”

Reeder suggested that seniors apply for an exemption every year in March, at the same time we all apply for the Permanent Fund Dividend. Any senior living in Sitka who met the residency requirements for a PFD would also be eligible for the sales tax exemption.

With two possible approaches to raising revenue through lifting the senior sales tax exemption, the assembly voted 6-1 to restore $38,000 for the Care-a-Van, with Bean opposed. Since the money to balance their decision had to come from somewhere now, the assembly also voted to reduce the $1 million set aside for low income electric subsidies by $38,000, plus another $25,000 to offset funding the assembly decided to give to the RIDE, Sitka’s public bus system.

Sitka police to lose one officer position

Sitka Police Chief Jeff Ankerfelt testifies before the assembly on the cut of one officer to his department. “Historically we’ve had vacancies of 2-3 at any given time,” Ankerfelt said, “But our minimum needed for efficiency is 17.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The cut of one full-time police officer stood, however. Fully staffed, Sitka’s Police Department uses 17 sworn officers including a chief. This allows for two day shifts, two night shifts, and vacation relief.

Chief Jeff Ankerfelt told the assembly that the department has been plagued by high turnover, and it’s hurting.

“In the 2-3 years that I’ve been here I don’t think anyone’s had a full week that reflected his schedule. There’s an attrition to that. I’ve watched them struggle trying to get time off to be with family members. Vacation time is difficult.”

Next year’s budget cuts the department to 16 officers, which is only 3 more than Sitka has working now — although two vacancies were due to be filled by September.

Administrator Mark Gorman said there was a logic to reducing the staff budget in the department, when they were already operating below minimum.

“We’re putting money out there that’s not being used. I’m not pointing at the Police Department, but whenever you have those reserves in department funds, I think it’s better held in the central bank.”

Mayor Matt Hunter objected.

“With all due respect it’s not what I would call a responsible cut, because to actually have our Police Department function in a way that our officers are protected, and can be safe, and able to thrive in Sitka, we need 17. So by cutting down to 16 and saying in the future we’ll add that 17 back in there — I have some difficulty with that because it’s going to look like we’re adding a position in a year, when really we’re not making a cut, we’re not going to fill it this year, but we still need it.”

The assembly took no action on restoring the cut police officer position. Neither did they dispute any of the other proposed General Fund reductions including a cut in non-profit grant support of $22,000, a $6,000 cut to the Sitka Economic Development Association, and a $35,000 cut in travel and training in City Hall.

There was one exception: The proposed cut of $36,000 for a lobbyist. Although lobbying in Juneau would be of limited value in the state’s current fiscal crisis, several members thought keeping a Washington lobbyist would be a good investment. Nevertheless, no action was taken to restore the cut.