The city budget is far from finalized, but the Sitka Assembly weighed in on how to spend a few more dollars when it met on Thursday night (3-5-2020), voting to fund two lobbying contracts, and offer $5,000 signing bonuses to three new police officers.
New city administrator John Leach said the $15,000 would be split among three newly hired officers. It was another carrot to bring qualified applicants to the Sitka Police Department, which has seen high turnover and few applicants for several open officer positions.
“We’ve had three applicants very recently, from Sitka and interested in Sitka, but as Chief [Baty] dug into it, they’re looking everywhere,” he said. “So we’d like to keep that talent locally and this is one small token that can assist with that.”
Assembly member Valorie Nelson said she couldn’t vote to support the incentive, given her concerns about the budget and workplace culture.
“I can’t in good conscience vote for this. I sat through two days of depositions in some litigation that’s going on,” she said. “I think that there are still problems in the police department, although I still have high hopes that the interim chief can figure it out.”
Several assembly members questioned whether a hiring incentive would make much of a difference. Police departments across the country are facing shortages and trying a number of things to be more competitive when it comes to recruiting officers. But member Thor Christianson thought it was a good starting place.
“This is a very small amount. I don’t know if it’s going to work. But if it does, it’s well worth it,” he said. “The issues that we’ve had with the police department aren’t going to be solved by starving them.”
Ultimately the signing bonuses passed 5-1 with member Nelson opposed.
The assembly was even more divided on whether to fund its lobbyists. The two budget items, for state lobbyist Larry Markley and the Washington DC firm of Blank Rome, totaled $145,000.
For the current year, the assembly agreed to apply the salary from the vacant community affairs director position toward hiring Blank Rome. But the job is back in the budget for next year. Nevertheless the assembly chose to fund the DC lobbyist once again, on a 4-2 vote with members Richard Wein and Kevin Knox opposed.
Those changes left the city’s general fund budget with a surplus of $155,000. But not for long: City staff showed the assembly a chart of the projected cost of capital projects and deferred maintenance, compared to projected revenues. It showed a stark, widening gap between the two. Leach said he knew it was a “scary chart.”
“This is our decision space that we can operate within,” said Leach. “We’re just trying to show you a picture of what we get and what we need if somebody just showed up with suitcases full of money. And we’re going to operate in that middle section there.”
Sitka’s budget for the 2021 fiscal year remains a work in progress. The assembly will continue to debate changes until a final budget is adopted in May.