At a special budget meeting last Thursday, community members appealed to the Sitka Assembly to boost funding for Sitka’s schools amid the threat of state budget cuts. Instead it instituted a hiring freeze on city staff and boosted funding for the library to stay open on Sundays.
Thirty people testified in a standing-room only crowd at the Sitka Assembly. The overarching message was: fund the Sitka School District to the allowed maximum in the face of deep state cuts to education.
“We will be known as the community that didn’t fund their schools,” Stephen Courtright said during public testimony. “Please fully fund our schools to the cap.”
And Cindy Westergaard asked that the Sitka Assembly use whatever money they had in reserves to fund education.
“Not for some city road or street signs getting repaired or removed,” she said. “How about using it for our children.”
City staff was recommending funding the district at around 6.5 million. These Sitkans want at least half a million more.
But the Sitka Assembly opted not to make a final decision about school funding. The school district must submit their budget to the state by July 15.
In the meantime…they spent last Thursday focused on the city’s internal budget instead- instituting an immediate hiring freeze on all city staff positions.
It was assembly member Aaron Bean’s initiative. He suggested the assembly review all unfilled city positions.
“What this is,” Bean said, “is more of a control where we’re going to see a reduction in full-time employees, not through cutting necessarily right away, but through attrition, I guess.”
Excluded would be the city’s planning director. That job remains unfilled over the assembly’s inability to agree on a starting salary.
But Mayor Gary Paxton cautioned against elected officials micro-managing.
“So we now want the assembly to be in charge of hiring people?” Paxton asked. “Is that what you want Aaron?”
The mayor was the sole dissenter on the motion which passed 4-1. Two members: Kevin Knox and Steven Eisenbeisz were absent.
More budget oversight of the Sitka Police Department was narrowly defeated. The department requested a quarter million dollars in overtime amid a high turnover rate.
Assembly member Richard Wein suggested the police chief be required to notify the assembly when overtime costs exceed $50,000.
“I’m not looking to stop it because there is something very valuable in their job and the indeterminate nature of it, but I do want to make sure they begin to think about scheduling,” he said.
Assembly member Kevin Mosher agreed, saying “I think this is a good thing, it simply triggers a conversation.”
But again it was Mayor Paxton to voice concern.
“In my 9 years as a city administrator I never had this much help from the assembly, but maybe I had bad assemblies that didn’t know what they were doing.”
The motion died as only three assembly members supported it.
Despite the cost-cutting mood, Sitka Public Library could stay open on Sundays for the first time in years. That reverses a past assembly’s cost-saving measure in 2016.
Assembly member Wein proposed adding $15,000 to the library’s budget.
“Staff at the library did a study and found they could open for at least four hours on Sunday for $15,000. Which I think is just the bargain of the universe,” he said.
The other four assembly members voted in agreement.
The Sitka Assembly’s next special budget meeting is scheduled for Thursday, May 2 at 6 p.m.