Sitka’s harbor fund could require additional city funding if “raw fish tax” sharing isn’t included in next year’s state budget. (Photo/Rose)

At the regular meeting of the Sitka Assembly Tuesday (5/28/19), assembly members narrowly passed all of next year’s department budgets on first reading, took a step toward changing how city property sales proceeds are disbursed, and changed the minimum lot sizes for residential properties.

At Tuesday night’s meeting of the Sitka Assembly, members approved next year’s budgets for the general fund, electric, water, wastewater, solid waste and harbor departments all, again, on first reading.

Each budget was brought forth individually, passed on split votes of 4-3 with  assembly members Aaron Bean, Richard Wein and Valorie Nelson opposed to each of the six motions. Nelson joined the 5-2 majority that passed the budget for the Marine Services Center and Airport.

This comes after multiple special budget meetings in April that generated impassioned discussion. But at Tuesday night’s meeting, none of the budgets evoked much debate at the assembly table, and no one gave public comment on the ordinances.

Only assembly member Steven Eisenbeisz tried to change one of the budgets- he made a motion to amend the solid waste fund to reduce the planned rate increase for collections from 6.5 percent to 2.5 percent.

That motion failed 4-3 with assembly member Knox, Mayor Gary Paxton, Wein and Bean opposed.

And when it came to the harbor department budget, assembly member Bean said he thought the city should anticipate a deficit in the fund after the state budget is finalized next month. Governor Mike Dunleavy’s proposed budget eliminates raw fish tax with cities. And that money helps fund Sitka’s harbors.

“I’ll be betting that we are gonna have to subsidize this fund from the general fund at some point which will put us at a deficit at about $600,000,” Bean said.

The Alaska Legislature has included “raw fish tax” sharing in its proposed budget, and Mayor Gary Paxton said he felt certain the line item wasn’t in danger of veto.

“My view is the fish tax and the bonded debt relief are in good shape. I will be surprised if the governor uses his red pen for that.” he said.

The Sitka Assembly will review the budget again, on second reading at their next meeting.

The assembly also considered changing how they divvy up proceeds from city property sales. Now, when the city sells land, the money is directed to the Sitka Permanent Fund. The assembly wants to change the city charter so half the money would go to the permanent fund and half would go to a special.  Paxton said he was in favor of changing city code.

“I think our forefathers did a good job of  writing our code, but I think this is something that’s time has arrived and i think this would be a rational way to proceed,” said Paxton.

Assembly member Kevin Mosher Mosher said the ordinance was timely- the city is putting Granite Creek Property out to bid for development, and Mosher said he wants to see some of the money from a potential sale go into an account where it can be more easily accessed for capital projects.

“We have a finite amount of land, and who knows how much we’ll sell it for. It may turn out that after we do ‘No Name Creek,’ or whatever, we have to practically give it away just to make it affordable,” he said. “I’m not promising that i’m just saying who knows.”

“There’s a limit on how much you can draw from the permanent fund,” he continued.

But assembly member Richard Wein disagreed.   

“By the way I keep hearing commentary from the table, et cetera, that this land is going to be put out kind of like at nothing so it can be project and have property tax come in,” Wein said. “Which sounds great, but that kind of defeats the purpose of this motion because it will in essence not fund a heck of a lot if we’re looking to sell cheap.”

Paxton said he had no intention of selling city property for under market value. The motion passed on first reading, 5-2 with Wein and Bean opposed.

If the ordinance passes on second reading, a change to the charter will go to the voters on Oct. 1.

Read more about Tuesday night’s Sitka Assembly meeting here