The Sitka Assembly has been exploring a subsidy program for over two years. Qualifying households may apply beginning August 31st of this year. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

The Sitka Assembly tackled a hodgepodge of issues during their regular meeting Tuesday night (03-28-18). That included giving final approval to a rebate program to help low income Sitkans pay their utility bills and going behind closed doors to discuss legal matters affecting a bulk water contract with a South Africa-based company. 

Downloadable audio.

Over two years ago, the Sitka Assembly learned that the lowest income citizens were struggling to pay their utility bills. Shut-off notices were on the rise. 

“I’ve talked to grandparents who are sitting at home in the dark because they’re worried about the rising cost of electricity,” said then-Assembly member Tristan Guevin.

Guevin and Assembly member Bob Potrzuski began exploring a utility cost subsidization program. Qualifying households would receive a monthly rebate check from the city to make ends meet. Guevin and Potrzuski’s original version of this ordinance was voted down in 2016 out of a concern the city couldn’t afford operating such a program.  

In 2017, the Assembly had a change of heart. With money owed on the Blue Lake Dam, they raised rates to 15-cents. This crippled low-income Sitkans further and Guevin insisted on a subsidy program. That year, the Assembly set aside $400,000 to launch it.  Assembly member Kevin Knox took over as co-sponsor after Guevin did not run for re-election and the ordinance evolved into what it is today. 

See utility cost subsidization ordinance here: Ord 2018-04S

As written, households may apply if they are already receiving assistance from 1) the state-administered Medicaid or 2) SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) programs, 3) the Baranof Island Housing Authority, or 4) the Sitka School District’s Free and Reduced lunch program (i.e. the National School Lunch program).

Speaking over the phone at Tuesday night’s meeting, Potrzuski said the program would do a lot of good in Sitka. “You’re looking at a family of four that’s making somewhere between $25,000 and $30,000 a year in Sitka. Another $35 a month to these people is an important thing,” he said.

But Assembly members had their concerns. Aaron Bean said he’d rather bring in an outside consultant to examine the electric rate structure first. Richard Wein supported a subsidy, but wasn’t confident that the ordinance as written targeted those most in need.

“It’s not unreasonable to consider subsidy, but we also have to consider our budget number one. And number two, if we’re going to do it, let’s do it right,” Wein said.

In the end, the ordinance passed as written by a vote 4-2, with Wein and Bean voting against. Mayor Matthew Hunter was absent. 

With the wheels officially in motion, the period to apply for a utility subsidy check is August 1st to October 31st. The program would begin in January. Subsidy checks would not exceed $65 a month. Should the program continue into the future, the money would have to be appropriated by a future Assembly. 

In other business, the Assembly gave final approval to a $280,000 appropriation to repair the pilings of the O’Connell Lighering Facility. On first reading, they also signed off an appropriation of $350,000 for rehabilitation work at the Thomsen Harbor Lift Station, which flooded in February, and approved policy updates for Sitka Public Library.

During special reports, Sitka Police Chief Jeff Ankerfelt said his officers needed better equipment to protect themselves in the event of an active shooter.  

“As we all know, AR-15, AK-47, and other things are ubiquitous. They’re everywhere. You know, we only have a couple officers that would be the first on the scene. It’s very likely that would come under fire. We need to make sure that they survive the initial encounter to eliminate the threat,” Ankerfelt said.

He’d like to see the city purchase rifle armor, ballistic helmets and optics for rifles.

During persons to be heard, Connie Kreiss and Sue Littman said they’d gathered 200 signatures so far for a petition to eliminate the senior sales tax exemption for all about low-income seniors. They petition calls for that revenue to be applied towards the Sitka School District.

“We Sitkans have enjoyed a lot of support from the state in the past. But you all know times have changed. That support is no longer available as it was for education, for capital projects, and for other services in Sitka,” Kreiss said.

Towards the end of their meeting, the Assembly went into executive session for nearly an hour to discuss a purchase agreement with Green Gold Distributors. That’s the South Africa-based company that wants to ship Sitka’s water in bulk to Cape Town. The Assembly reconvened after nearly an hour behind closed doors and directed city staff to renegotiate the contract. All, but Assembly member Richard Wein voted in favor.