SEARHC will continue negotiations with the city over the potential sale of Sitka Community Hospital into the new year, but some details from those negotiations came to light at last night’s assembly meeting (Photo KCAW/Emily Kwong)

The city is closer to finalizing negotiations with SEARHC over the potential affiliation with Sitka Community Hospital. At last night’s meeting of the Sitka Assembly, one of the terms of those negotiations came to light, but the rest were discussed behind closed doors.

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The Sitka Assembly heard an update from consultant Sarah Cave regarding the continued negotiations between the city of Sitka and Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium, or SEARHC, over the potential purchase of Sitka Community Hospital. She told the assembly the city was in a good position following a recent meeting of the negotiation team.

“We haven’t landed the plane, but we got to, I think, a good place,” Cave said. “The balls in our court.”

While the presentation only lasted about 15 minutes and didn’t touch on too many specifics, Cave did disclose one decision made at the negotiation table. If Sitka Community Hospital employees transitioned into jobs at SEARHC, what would happen to any paid time off they’d banked? After the last negotiation meeting, Cave said they came to an agreement.

“The arrangement that’s been struck is that up to 80 hours of paid time off can actually move with the employee to SEARHC. Anything above that Sitka Community Hospital would pay off prior to the transition.”

She said they had also developed an approach to the transition planning process for the two hospitals, which will begin in January.

“At this point, that will be focused on both organizations learning what the other is doing and how they do it. So that when the time is right,” Cave continued, “they can move in a more accelerated fashion on actually planning what the future is going to look like.”

Cave didn’t offer more specifics about that plan. She also said both SEARHC and SCH had agreed on a method for limiting liabilities for both parties, but couldn’t offer more details on that agreement. Cave saved some updates for when she and consultant Steve Huebner and outside legal counsel Sandy Johnson met with assembly members in executive session. Before they went behind closed doors, Mayor Gary Paxton said he wanted to make sure that they were doing so with necessity and a clear purpose.

“The more we can share straightforward with the public what’s going on, in my view, the greater the trust levels will be and the greater will be your asset going to negotiate on behalf of our people,” Paxton said.

Cave said negotiations are ongoing, the teams will meet again on January 7 in Sitka, then on January 18, in Seattle.

The assembly also voted, on second and final reading, to match grant funding for a senior citizen van. Currently the city budgets to help Catholic Community Services maintain two vans. That organization purchased a third from Hoonah, and these funds would go to purchase a fourth van this spring. While the assembly voted unanimously in favor of the budget appropriation, assembly member Kevin Knox said the van fleet may need a bigger budget in the future.

“With the growth of the senior population,” Knox said. “And probably the growth in need for rides, we’re probably going to need to reflect this in the budget going forward.”

And assembly member Richard Wein said if Knox’s prediction was correct, perhaps the city should consider buses.

“If the need does grow, I think that it’s much more energy efficient to have people moved around by bus. We can take care of more people,” Wein said. “If anybody has ever driven around in Miami Beach, you’d be happy to have them off the road.”

The assembly also considered a new contract with the Sitka Chamber of Commerce, whose previous contract to provide convention and visitor services for the city expired in June. The city allocated a base budget of $300,000. Last year, operating costs for the organization were $481,000. Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Rachel Roy said the organization will present their marketing plan to the assembly during a work session on January 8, at which time the assembly will decide how much additional funding to offer. But voting on the base, without knowing the full budget didn’t sit will with Wein.

“I think it would be prudent to have this discussion after January 8th, after we get full information. You cannot run a visitors center or the period on $300,000,” he said.

Ultimately the assembly voted 5-1 in favor of the contract, with Valerie Nelson voting against.