When the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday (10-13-21), it closed the final chapter in the city’s ownership of the former Sitka Community Hospital Building. While two thirds of Sitka voters supported the $8.25 million dollar property sale to the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium (SEARHC), some Assembly members say they think the hospital is being sold off at too low a price.
SEARHC bought the Sitka Community Hospital business in 2019, but the city of Sitka kept the land and buildings. As part of the sale agreement, SEARHC committed to a five-year lease of the building, where it would continue to provide long-term care to patients. Two years into the lease, SEARHC offered to buy the whole thing for $8.25 million dollars. In the proposal it submitted to the city, the consortium outlined a $38 million dollar plan (web: including the purchase price) to expand its long-term care unit and build 28 apartments to bring housing to the community.
Sitkans were asked to weigh in on whether to sell the public property. But October’s vote was advisory, and the final decision came down to elected leaders on Tuesday. While roughly two thirds of voters supported the sale in the election, two people spoke out against the deal. Carin Adickes said it reminded her of the movie, “It’s a Wonderful Life” where one wealthy man is poised to take over a small town.
“Jimmy Stewart, if he had never been alive, the town would have been named Potterville,” she said. “Sadly, I think our town is turning into SEARHCville because not only are they going to do long term care they’re going to do apartments.”
Adickes voiced concern that the apartments wouldn’t be on the city’s tax rolls. And Assembly member Rebecca Himschoot shared those concerns–she said she’d looked into whether SEARHC will pay sales or property taxes on their housing units, and still hadn’t gotten a clear answer. She said she was conflicted but would still vote yes to the sale.
“I’m very concerned about the city’s future, if and when the day comes that we have the money to build a new police department or some other need that the city has, we do not have a centrally located property at this time, apart from that building,” she said. “So there are many reasons that I am concerned about this sale. On the upside, 28 housing units will not hurt Sitka. That’s a great thing for Sitka. I think SEARHC offers a lot to our community. I’m just hoping that they’re going to be a partner we like working with.”
Himschoot also voiced concerns about the city and SEARHC using the same appraiser to estimate the property’s fair market value. Assembly member Thor Christianson also expressed concerns about the appraisal , but said due to the overwhelming public support in the advisory vote, he’d support it.
“Although I voted against this as a citizen, and I still don’t think it was enough money, and I also have concerns about what happened with the assessment. But point being is we put it to a vote and it wasn’t close,” he said. “If it were close to a 50/50 I might vote against this, but I feel like I’m pretty much obligated to go with the vote.”
Outgoing Assembly member Valorie Nelson didn’t feel that same obligation.
“I’m not obligated to go by the vote because it was an advisory vote if you remember, I don’t like the $8 million asking price. I think we’re better with a lease,” she said.
And Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz said he was glad the advisory vote was decisive, and he was excited for SEARHC to move forward with its plans for the building.
“I think the sale of this building is going to it’s going to leave a hole in Sitka for many that were born at the hospital that received services at the building,” he said. “But it’s not going to be the end of the building’s story. Just simply a new chapter in the building with a new owner.”
The Assembly authorized the sale 6-1 with member Valorie Nelson opposed. The Assembly will review a final purchase agreement at a future meeting.
Election results certified, new members sworn in
Shortly after the Assembly voted on the hospital sale, it certified the results from the municipal election on October 5. Former Fire Chief Dave Miller and incumbent Assembly member Kevin Mosher were sworn in.
But Municipal Clerk Sara Peterson, who oversees Sitka’s elections, said she noticed the count was slightly off after they’d tallied the nearly 800 early and absentee votes on Friday afternoon.
“When we conducted the absentee question count on Friday October 8, I expected 795 ballots to be processed at that count,” Peterson told KCAW in an interview. “When we concluded, just before 3 p.m., I saw there were only 793 ballots processed.”
Peterson released the preliminary election results to the public just before 3 p.m. Friday (10-8-21). She says she and her staff then returned to city hall and reviewed all of the ballot envelopes. Within an hour, they discovered two ballots in the ballot bag that had not been processed.
Peterson said mistakes like this are rare, but with early and absentee voting becoming more common, her team needs to be ready for future elections.
“There’s always room for improvement, and this is kind of a first for me, so we’re just going to put in some extra double checks in the future and move forward,” Peterson said.
The two ballots didn’t affect the final outcome for any of the races. The ballots closed the gap slightly between Kevin Mosher and the third candidate for the two open seats, Rachel Moreno, who in the updated count only trailed Mosher by nine votes.
After the Assembly certified the election results at the meeting and swore in new members, it recognized outgoing Assembly member and former mayor Valorie Nelson with a service award. Nelson said, however, she would remain active in Sitka’s civic affairs.
“I’m not done talking to you people. I’m going to come back and talk to you on that side of the table,” Nelson said.
Nelson used her final moments as an Assembly member to criticize Sitka’s mask mandate which she voted against at the last meeting.
In other business the Sitka Assembly…
–Unanimously voted to include a land acknowledgment on the Sitka Assembly’s meeting agenda. If approved on second reading, the mayor will read the acknowledgement at the beginning of the meeting. The acknowledgement currently reads–“The Assembly of the City and Borough of Sitka would like to respectfully acknowledge the traditional first people of Sheet’ Ká, with gratitude we proceed on Tlingit Aaní.”
-Appointed Kevin Knox as Deputy Mayor and Kevin Mosher as Vice-Deputy Mayor, and assigned Assembly liason roles
–Unanimously voted to appoint Karen Lucas to a three-year term on the Historic Preservation Commission, and 2) Thomas Martin to an unexpired term on the Library Commission
-Unanimously approved a standard marijuana cultivation license renewal for Darren H. Phillips dba Fiberflite
–Discussed leasing city tidelands adjacent to 1406 Sawmill Creek Road to Sharon and Lisa Williamson. The Assembly directed staff to draft a lease for the tidelands at 6 percent of the value per year.
-Unanimously approved the minutes of the September Assembly meetings
-The Assembly heard a special report from Sitka Sound Science Center Executive Director Lisa Busch and researcher Dr. Annette Patton- the two gave an update on the landslide research.