The Sitka Assembly is considering recommendations from city staff to raise the salary of the library director, to add an assistant fire chief position, and to not rehire engineering positions in the public works and electric departments.

In a special budget meeting Thursday (1-23-20), interim administrator Hugh Bevan and city staff proposed new budget items that weren’t quite “status quo” from last year.

The library director position has been vacant since last September and has seen high turnover over the past 5 years. The assembly brought a finalist for the position to visit Sitka last fall, but according to a memo from Bevan, she declined the position due to the low salary of just over $71,156 per year.

Staff recommended a salary increase of $12,000 to help attract a qualified candidate. Member Thor Christianson said the raise was necessary to get a qualified candidate in there soon to relieve library staff.

“This is a real bone of contention with them right now, because they’re getting incredibly frustrated with not being able to get a library director in here,” he said. “This is not somebody checking out books, this is a real professional. They’ve probably got more letters in front of their name than any of us.”

“Maybe we should look at relaxing all the letters that we need after the name and asking the person that’s acting to step into the position,” member Valorie Nelson said, pushing back on the proposal.

The proposed raise for the library director position will come to the assembly table for a first reading when it meets on January 28th.

There also was some pushback on a proposal to budget $15,000 for signing bonuses for police officers — $5000 for three positions — in an effort to attract applicants to the understaffed department. 

Assembly member Kevin Mosher said he supported the proposal. Member Richard Wein said it was too simple, since there were bigger asks from the department coming down the line — especially from the Public Safety Employees Association, the union representing Sitka’s police officers.

“I know that the PSEA has been asking for, also, hourly increases, so I would think a little more comprehensive plan needs to be developed and presented with the costs involved,” he said.

The assembly was hesitant to jump at the recommendation to hire an assistant fire chief. The position used to exist but was removed from the payroll several years ago. But it is required by the city code, so the assembly needs to hire for the post or change code. 

Christianson questioned whether the absence of the position is costing the city a lot in overtime, and wondered if it might actually cost less to keep the position on the books. Assembly member Kevin Knox agreed.

“Okay overtime for the engineers is sometimes great for their paycheck, but if it’s something that’s costing the city even more money in our annual budget,” he said, “I don’t really fully understand that logic as far as eliminating the position, adding workload onto people and actually costing us more money.” 

Assembly members asked Bevan to bring a cost comparison to the table.

City staff also proposed leaving two recently open positions vacant, including a system engineer in the Electric Department and an engineering post in Public Works. Staff said that leaving the public works position vacant would only save around $27,000 next year even though the position costs around $150,000, because cutting the position means a loss in revenue of around $122,000.

Administrator Bevan also proposed taking out $300,000 from the general fund for debt service to apply for a USDA loan that would finance the first phase of maintenance of the Green Lake power plant. The plant’s infrastructure is aging and is in critical need of replacement. Bevan said overall the cost would be around $13 million to repair the infrastructure. And if it fails, it would cost ratepayers. 

“There are components in phase 1 that are old and antiquated. And if they fail, we will be burning diesels, and I asked the electric department to give us an analysis of what it would cost us to run diesels in [an] average temperature environment,” Bevan said. “It’s about a million dollars a month in diesel fuels, about 50,000 gallons. “

Although the assembly offered direction to city staff, no formal action was taken.