Sitka residents and businesses may be getting a utility rebate, thanks to $14 million in federal coronavirus relief money coming into the city. The Sitka Assembly Tuesday night (5-19-20) met in a work session to discuss how to distribute the federal disaster relief funding. And although a utility rebate wasn’t the only idea on the table, it likely will be the first to return for a formal vote.
The Alaska Legislature met in Juneau this week to finalize a spending plan for over $1 billion in federal relief funds in the state. The city of Sitka is set to receive $14 million.
The money is not without strings: The funds must be spent on costs incurred from March to December of this year due to the coronavirus pandemic. And the rules governing how that money is spent could change down the line.
The city’s head of finance, Jay Sweeney, said there were many uncertainties, so the city needed to proceed carefully as it allocated funds, and keep a thorough paper trail.
“Municipalities that expend funds on purposes deemed to not be legitimate will be required to repay the funds,” he said.
Several assembly members were interested in using part of the money to help local small businesses that have suffered economically in the wake of the pandemic. Thor Christianson and Kevin Mosher said they were working on an ordinance that would give a stimulus to businesses, nonprofits and citizens that qualified, through a utility rebate.
“We can make a very simple, essentially ‘I’ve been economically hurt by COVID-19’ checkbox on an online form, and then we drop $1000 in their account,” Christianson said. “I would argue we should have two numbers; one for individuals and the other one for businesses of any kind…and then we’ll drop $3000 or $4000 into a business account because their [costs] are significantly higher.”
But assembly member Richard Wein said utility costs were only part of the puzzle- he wanted to flesh out what the community’s full needs were, before allocating any of the funds.
“We need to sound the depth of what the demands are going to be in order to allocate,” Wein said. “I think that’s what called a budget. We need budget wisdom here, in beginning to determine allocations for this so we don’t run out of money.”
City administrator John Leach recommended the assembly create a working group with city staff to develop a budget that would put money toward several categories of need, like grants, utility subsidies, and testing.
Member Steven Eisenbeisz asked if the city would consider collaborating with the Sitka Tribe of Alaska, so the two governments wouldn’t duplicate their relief efforts.
In an email to KCAW, STA General Manager Lisa Gassman wrote that the Tribe has received $7.2 million in federal aid, and is expecting additional funding when the rest of the $8 billion earmarked for Tribes in the CARES Act is fully disbursed. STA is in the early stages of deciding how that money will be allocated.
Eisenbeisz also wondered if the assembly was interested in putting some of the money toward schools, and asked if assembly members would consider using some of the funds for rapid testing.
“This is an investment in our future, perhaps,” he said. “While it doesn’t directly affect a business monetarily, it may allow a business to continue to be in business. Rapid testing is going to help our citizens.”
And member Kevin Knox wanted the assembly to consider the needs of childcare centers. Centers can legally open back up but under strict guidelines.
“Our childcare resources were already way past stretched. And now looking at even a June 1 opening, if they can even do that at this point,” Knox said. “They’re only taking in maybe a third of the capacity that they used to have. We’re asking people to go back to work, we’re asking families to commit to going back to their original jobs that they were in before all of this, yet we don’t have a place to put a lot of kids.”
The assembly took no action at the work session, but members Christianson and Mosher plan to bring forward an ordinance on utility rebates at its regular meeting next week.
Note: The only members of the public to testify at the meeting either have been or are now affiliated with KCAW.