Since opening in 2003, Fortress of the Bear has salvaged 13 cubs. Fortress director Les Kinnear is hoping to expand the facility to make more room for the black bears. (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

Assembly gives $27 million general fund budget first approval 

The Sitka Assembly approved the city’s budget for the upcoming year on first reading Tuesday night (05-23-17), but postponed a decision on buying more office space for the hospital.

Sitka Community Hospital requested $400,000 for a modular unit to add much-needed space at the clinic (Memo SCH Modular). But the Assembly wasn’t ready to invest in the physical future of the building before hearing from the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium about their idea for a merger.

Assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz said that $400,000 was no drop in the bucket. “It’s not a small amount of money. I’d rather spend a million dollars on something that is permanent for the next 30 years than $400,000 on something… a short term fix to me is less than 10 years,” Eisenbeisz said.

SEARHC will present their merger proposal to the Assembly at a work session on May 30th.

Sitka Community Hospital also plans to present their plan for an independent future at a separate meeting. SCH has hired an outside consultant – Stroudwater Associates – to guide that decision making. The consultant arrives this week.

The budget also includes a $400,000 transfer from the General Fund to the Electric Fund to meet the bond obligation for the Blue Lake Dam, due July 1st.

The Assembly approved the budget by a vote of 4-1, with Eisenbeisz voting against. Assembly members Tristan Guevin and Aaron Swanson were absent. The budget will be up for final adoption on June 13.

City incurs savings on health insurance

While putting the final touches on the city’s spending plan, City Administrator Mark Gorman had some good news to share about savings.

Paula Scott, the city’s insurance agent, negotiated for a 12% increase in employee health insurance. The city had been budgeting for a 17.5% increase. This translates into a $105,000 savings for the school district and $50,000 savings for the general fund, which could mean less coming out of reserves.

Gorman said, “Paula has done yeoman’s service for our community. This is fast breaking news and a little bit of sunshine on the budget.” He does not yet know how much savings will be gained from hospital employees.

Budget includes $6.6 million for Sitka’s School, but further cuts from state may come

The Sitka School District will receive $6.6 million for schools and $150,000 for building repairs and maintenance. The Assembly had initially planned to cut that contribution by $239,000, but after hearing about challenges facing the district at a May 2nd Special Budget meeting, restored $200,000 to schools.

The district is still awaiting critical funding decisions from the legislature. The Senate has put forth a 5% cut to Alaska schools, that students recently protested. That translates into $800,000 less dollars for Sitka’s schools. Superintendent Mary Wegner said, “Where they end up, we don’t know. But there is very likely going to be a 1 or a 2% cut.” That would translate into fewer elementary school teachers and an increase in classroom sizes for 2nd and 5th graders.

Wegner told the Assembly she’s also authorizing the immediate hire of a new music teacher for Blatchley Middle School, as Michael Kernin is moving to Sitka High School.

See the school district’s budget plan here: SSD FY18 Adopted Budget Book

Search for interim administrator expands; decision on June 1st

In preparing for the departure of City Administrator Mark Gorman, the Assembly is opening up the search for an interim administrator beyond depart heads.

They’re currently accepting letters of interest and resumes for the position, which would start June 16th and last for three to four months. They’ll select that individual at a special meeting on June 1st at 6 p.m.

The Assembly is still seeking the future administrator of Sitka.

Fortress of the Bear to see 99 more years of bear care

The Assembly approved extended the lease for Fortress of the Bear for another 99 years. The non-profit, which shelters orphaned bear cubs, began in 2003 on a plot with two clarifier tanks from the pulp mill.  

Co-owner Les Kinnear remarked that what started altruistically, earning plenty of doubt the then-Assembly, has become a booming business. “We’ve salvaged 13 little bears. We’ve entertained 150,000 people. We generate in the community, I’m guessing, in excess of $1 million a year,” he said.  Along with his wife Evy, Kinnear wants to continue that operation and add more habitat for the black bears.

The Assembly approved the lease renewal at $50 a month, but asked Kinnear if he’d consider shortening the lease

Mayor Matthew Hunter: I won’t be here 99 years. As long as you’re around, I have no doubt that this place is going to be working very well. I wonder if there’s a shorter time frame that you would be comfortable with.

Kinnear: 98

(Laughs from audience)

Hunter: Good answer.

A motion to tie the lease to the Anchorage Consumer Price Index failed by a vote of 3-2. 

Boat and plane rates for Baranof Warm Springs dock

The Assembly also approved – on first reading – a final subdivision plat for a cottage neighborhood on Halibut Point Road and set summertime moorage rates for boats and planes at the Baranof Warm Springs Dock.

The city acquired the dock in 2016 and is implementing new fees to pay for maintenance expenses. They amended the resolution to establish seasonal rates for float planes.

  • Vessels up to 20 feet in length: Daily Fee $10, Weekly Fee $40 and Seasonal Fee $100
  •  Vessels 20 to 35 feet in length: Daily Fee $20, Weekly Fee $80 and Seasonal Fee $200
  • Vessels 35 to 50 feet in length: Daily Fee $30, Weekly Fee $120 and Seasonal Fee $300
  • Vessels 50 to 65 feet in length: Daily Fee $40, Weekly Fee $160 and Seasonal Fee $400
  • Float Plane: Daily Fee $20, Weekly Fee $80 and Seasonal Fee $200

The proposed rates would kick in May 15th through September 15th. See the full resolution here: 2017-07 Baranof Warm Springs moorage rates

Farewell to Robb Farmer

Sitka Library Director Robb Farmer is leaving the position to head up community libraries at a county in Alabama. He arrived in 2014 when the library was named Kettleson and temporarily located on the Sheldon Jackson campus. Under his tenure, the library received a new name – Sitka Public Library – new location, and expanded programming.

Tuesday was Farmer’s last Assembly meeting and he used that time to do what he’s always done – promote events and programs at the library – which he called “our library.”

“I’ve been honored to be here. Family reasons are taking me away. But I will be back to visit. And I want to thank and commend the hardest working library staff I know. They’ve made everything much easier for me,” Farmer said.

Maite Lorente will take the helm in mid-June as the library’s interim director.

Correction: A previous version of this story stated that the city incurred $500,000 in savings from reduced health insurance increases. KCAW regrets the error.