Local voters may help determine the future of the former Sitka Community Hospital building. When the Assembly met on Tuesday (8-11-21), it chose to put a hospital property sale question on this fall’s municipal election ballot — as an advisory question. But many details, including the sale terms, buyer and price, still haven’t been decided.
In May, the Assembly issued a “request for proposals” seeking competitive bids to purchase or lease the former Sitka Community Hospital building, which now houses the Long Term Care unit for the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium. A committee is now reviewing those proposals, and will present the winning bid for Assembly approval at the next meeting.
According to city code, the Assembly can vote to sell the hospital property on its own, or it can put it out to an “advisory vote” of the public. Member Thor Christianson said it’s a chance for the Assembly to get a fuller picture of how Sitkans feel about selling the property.
“It’s something that allows us to get everybody’s take on it,” he said. “I think if it’s a good sale package, if the offer is good enough, I think it will pass. But I still think we should ask people.”
According to planning director Amy Ainslie, the city received at least one proposal to purchase or lease the building, but they have not yet disclosed who the top bidder is, or what they bid.
The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium — or SEARHC — expressed interest in purchasing the property last year. SEARHC bought out Sitka Community Hospital two years ago, but the city retained ownership of the building.
During public comment, Richard Wein, a medical doctor who previously worked at both Sitka Community Hospital and SEARHC, said a sale shouldn’t go on the ballot because it shouldn’t be considered at all.
“The best use is with SEARHC. But in the long run, the city needs to keep this land because all good things must come to an end,” he said. “And it would be nice to continue to own it.”
While Wein was the sole commenter at Tuesday’s meeting, Sitkans have weighed in on the sale on a few previous occasions. Earlier this year, the city hosted two town halls and issued a survey to gather public input. Around 30 total people attended both town halls –most opposed to a sale. Of the over 200 Sitkans who responded to the survey, around half of them were in favor of a sale. Around 30 % were opposed and 20 % were unsure.
Member Crystal Duncan opposed putting the sale question on the ballot. She expressed concern that an advisory vote would be seen by some as a “referendum” on the hospital merger in 2019. She also pointed to the surveys and town halls that were part of a public process the Assembly initially chose in lieu of an advisory vote.
“This has been basically a one year process, where we’ve gone step by step to ensure that the public was included,” she said. “To ensure that we were acting in the best interest of residents as far as this asset goes.”
Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz said while he was in favor of putting the sale out to the voters, Duncan’s comments gave him pause.
“I still believe that the vote is the correct thing to do. But do you alienate the other processes we’ve gone through?” he said. “Do you invalidate them, do you do you make those people feel like…like their time and their input doesn’t matter anymore, because we’re going through another one?”
Ultimately the Assembly voted 4-2 to put the sale out to an “advisory” vote in the October 5 municipal election, with members Crystal Duncan and Kevin Knox opposed.