The City of Sitka is rapidly working its way through $14 million in federal CARES Act relief. With the deadline just over two months away, local officials are in the unusual position of spending money as fast as they can.

City administrator John Leach reported to the assembly that many of the city’s CARES Act programs had not only achieved liftoff- some were mid-flight, and others were about to stick the landing.

The timing is important. As it now stands, federal coronavirus relief funds must be spent before the end of the calendar year. There were strict parameters around the $14 million dollars the city received, and in June, the assembly established a working group to figure out how to spend it quickly.

The group was made up of representatives from the Sitka Tribe of Alaska and Sitka’s business sector, along with city staff and assembly members. It ultimately decided to spend the money in a few key areas: The lion’s share of the funding was set aside for utility and moorage subsidies, and grants for businesses and nonprofits. Another category, “city-funded programs,” included funding for food, housing, and childcare.

$750,000 in that category was initially budgeted for a transitional employment program, to hire unemployed or underemployed people for city work projects. Leach said the program is in full swing. 

“We’ve got some training projects, we’ve got some projects going on at the Wastewater Treatment Plant, Pioneer Park, the sea walk, skate park, senior center, Whale Park, Kimsham, the animal shelter, Sandy Beach, Moller. So obviously lots of projects happening right now.”

Leach estimated that around 22 people had been hired through the program. “I’ve personally had a few of the temporary workers come up and thank us for this program and giving them the opportunity to get back to work, so all signs point to it’s going very well,” he said.

The city has contracted with the Sitka Conservation Society to administer some of the work, in a program that SCS branded the “Sitka Community Conservation Corps.” Their tasks included some trail work that Leach said is nearly finished.

“They have got some public works programs they’re working on as well- they submit their projects to public works, they approve them, modify them as necessary,” he said. “And they’re also working on a project at Goddard Hot Springs, so that’s progressing.” 

Assembly member Valorie Nelson said she was concerned about how much CARES Act funding could be going toward construction “mobilization” for the projects, rather than directly to workers’ wages. She asked the city administrator if, in the future, the assembly could see a breakdown of how the contract funds were being spent. 

Assembly member Kevin Knox praised the transitional employment program for killing two birds with one stone.  

“The amount of work that’s being done, not only to be able to employ people that lost their jobs or were underemployed during this time, but also being able to address a really large backlog on deferred maintenance around our buildings, around our parks,” he said. “It’s kind of had a two sided good for us in a lot of ways.” 

Deadlines are soon approaching for other city CARES Act programs. The United States Congress is preparing another major coronavirus relief bill, but the White House has put a hold on it until after the general election on November 3.  

The second round of utility subsidies was finalized earlier this month. The applications for the second wave of business and non-profit grants closes this Friday (10-30-20).

Read the application and FAQs here

The assembly also recognized November as “Native American Heritage Month.” Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz presented the proclamation to Tribal Council Chair Kathy Hope Erickson, who outlined some of the events Sitka Tribe of Alaska is hosting to commemorate the month, including a virtual open house and a scavenger hunt.

In other business, the Sitka Assembly…

-Unanimously approved the reallocation of around $400,000 in grant funding from the former Takatz Lake project to the Green Lake hydro project.

-Unanimously approved the appointment of Carin Adickes, Fire Chief Craig Warren and Fire Engineer Jennifer Klejka to terms on the Local Emergency Planning Commission.

-Unanimously denied an appeal from the business “Octopus Box” for a CARES Act Business and Non-Profit Grant. The business did not qualify for a grant due to no 2018 or 2019 revenue.