Draft of the FY2020 General Fund Operating Budget- the assembly passed the budget on first reading at their regular meeting Tuesday (5/14/19)

After considering cuts from one department and increasing rates for another, the Sitka Assembly is closer to passing next year’s city budget, but the process that has spanned months isn’t finished yet.

At their regular meeting Tuesday (5/14/19), the Sitka Assembly approved the general fund budget for 2020, on first reading, with just one amendment.

The change, brought to the table by assembly member Richard Wein, was a ten percent cut to the city’s travel budget to the tune of almost $40,000.

“The total amount for the travel is $385,000 approximately. There are four pages,” Wein said. “The reason I chose this is because it seemed to be fairly simple.”

Chief Financial Officer Jay Sweeney said that the measure could lengthen the budget process, which is set to be finalized within the next two assembly meetings, by requiring three separate readings. Mayor Gary Paxton said that city staff needed to figure out a way that it could be done quickly.

“The assembly has a will to cut city government,” Paxton said. “Every time an assembly member says ‘I want to cut something,’ we say “Oh no!” You just gotta do it Jay.”

But he said they should avoid anymore meetings if possible.

“I don’t want to go to a third reading unless the Lord demands the damn thing,” Paxton said.

Assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz said he wanted to be sure that the cuts didn’t impact required training for any city staff.

“Training is a necessity,” Eisenbeisz said. “Travel to conferences may be a little more of a luxury item.”

The amendment passed 5-1 with assembly member Kevin Knox opposed, and the overall general fund budget passed 5-1, on first reading, with Wein opposed.

The assembly also directed the city administrator to cut an additional $80,000 from the electric department’s budget. Assembly member Kevin Mosher brought the motion to the floor. He said the move would cover a  budget shortfall resulting from an ordinance he plans to bring to the assembly table in the future.

Mosher wants to push the seasonal rate increase for electric utilities back a month. Currently, electric rates increase in March for the summer months. Mosher thinks pushing that increase back to April would relieve some of the economic hardships associated with big utility bills.

“I think it would help the people, because people who are on the earlier billing cycle, they get hit really hard with a huge bill increase because it’s still cold,” he said.

The motion to cut $80,000 from the electric fund passed 4-2 with assembly members Steven Eisenbeisz and Knox opposed.  

The rate-cutting did not extend to other departments at Tuesday’s meeting, however. In fact the assembly moved  ahead with one rate increase, increasing permanent and temporary moorage rates and other harbor fees by three percent. The resolution passed 5-1 with assembly member Valorie Nelson opposed.

Another budget measure that made it to a vote did not pass. Assembly member Aaron Bean, who was communicating for part of the meeting via teleconference, proposed sweeping cuts to all of Sitka’s departments. Bean made a motion to match next year’s spending to last year’s revenue, including all depreciation.

Mayor Paxton — a former municipal administrator — reacted strongly. “Uh, negative,” he said, and laughed.

On the fly, Sweeney and controller Melissa Haley did the math to see how the proposal could affect the various city funds. Haley said it could mean, in one example, $9.25 million cut from the electric fund. Bean proposed amending his motion by removing “depreciation,” and the assembly agreed. Sweeney said even without depreciation, the measure would still have considerable effect.

“On quite a number of the funds, you’re going to kill all of the capital expenditures,” Sweeney said. “In particular, your harbor project is dead. You can’t do that. Even though you’ve got a grant, you’re going to kill that. You’ve got problems in other funds too.”

Paxton said that the draft of the budget, as is, is balanced, but Bean didn’t see it that way.

“If you don’t have the money you can’t spend it,” Bean said.

“Noted. Call for the vote,” Paxton responded.

“We can adjust the budget any time,” Bean continued and Paxton banged his gavel.

“Call for the vote,” Paxton said again.

“Yeah that’s what I thought, “Bean said.

The measure failed 2-5 with Wein, Knox, Eisenbeisz, Mosher and Paxton opposed. After that, Bean signed off for the evening.

Assembly members will review the draft of next year’s budget again at their May 28 meeting.

With subcommittee, assembly ups city hiring oversight

At a four-and-a-half hour meeting that was focused, in large part, on next year’s municipal budget, the Sitka Assembly, Tuesday, spent a considerable amount of time on less complex agenda items. Even so, discussion became a little heated.

Assembly members considered who to appoint to a subcommittee that will review all city positions as they become available and make a recommendation to city staff about whether or not the positions should be filled. The measure to increase assembly oversight in city hiring narrowly passed at a meeting in April, as a means to reduce the city budget through attrition.

Mayor Gary Paxton suggested deputy mayor Steven Eisenbeisz should chair the committee. Then assembly member Valorie Nelson, who was attending via teleconference, volunteered.

“I think there’s a lot of arrogance going on,” Nelson said. “And a woman brings a different perspective. And although I’ve been labeled unfriendly to a lot of people, I believe I have a lot of common sense, and I don’t believe I’m arrogant.”

Eisenbeisz asked Nelson for clarification on her comment.

“I just have to know, was that comment directed towards me?” Eisenbeisz asked.

“Not you in particular, but there’s a lot of testosterone on the assembly, Nelson responded. “I present a different perspective and if you’re attacking me, I’m done. Thank you, good night.”

Nelson then hung up. After more discussion, assembly member Kevin Mosher moved to appoint Eisenbeisz as the chair and assembly members Richard Wein and Nelson to the subcommittee, but Nelson missed the vote. Nevertheless it passed 5-1 with member Kevin Knox voting against. Minutes later, Nelson was back on the line.

Assembly conference travel talk turns tense

The assembly also spent some time debating whether or not to send Chief Financial Officer Jay Sweeney to a meeting in Anchorage. This June, the Alaska Municipal League is considering a statewide authority that would collect sales tax from online retailers like Amazon. City Administrator Keith Brady wants Sitka to have a seat at the table and be represented by Sweeney.

But assembly member Aaron Bean said he didn’t want to send anyone to the Municipal League meeting to figure out a way to tax the public more. If they had to send someone, he preferred an elected official represent Sitka, and he nominated Nelson.

“I know Valorie’s expertise, she’s been a mayor, she’s sound in her decision. She’s going to speak on behalf of the people,” Bean said. “She’ll have a voice and its the voice that got her elected.”

Nelson said that if she felt she’d be a voice of reason, and said she may go to the conference on her own accord. During public comment, Levi Albertson spoke, and said the assembly should send Sweeney, not an assembly member, to represent the city.

“I think you could watch the assembly tonight and you could see exactly why. I wouldn’t trust most of you to make a frozen pizza tonight after your behavior,” Albertson said. “This has been absolutely ridiculous. I think it’s an extension of your hostility towards labor. You don’t trust the employees to do the work you pay them for. It’s preposterous.”

Mosher proposed amending the motion to send both Nelson and Sweeney. The assembly agreed. Then the assembly voted to send the two representatives on a 5-2 vote with Eisenbeisz and Wein opposed.

In other business

  • The assembly approved the sale of the administration building at Gary Paxton Industrial Park to Patrick Barker Junior. The building was hit by a landslide in 2015 and has been unoccupied ever since. The property was sold to Barker, as-is, for $20,000.
  • The assembly unanimously approved a grant application for bulletproof vests for the Sitka Police Department.
  • On a vote of 5-2, they authorized the city administrator to hire 5 temporary and one full-time employee, with Nelson and Bean opposed.
  • They voted 5-2 to request the state of Alaska remove a deed restriction on a 5,000 acre Green Lake land parcel, with Nelson and Wein opposed.
  • And they unanimously re-appointed David Hunt to a three year term on the Animal Hearing Boar and re-appointed Darryl Rehkopf to a three year term on the library commission.