After months of negotiations, Sitka’s garbage shipping problem is finally coming to a head. When the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday (10-26-21), it tentatively approved $3 million in funding for a compactor, but some Assembly members were concerned that the loan city staff want to use to pay for the equipment isn’t what the money is meant for.

The new solid waste compactor will compress Sitka’s garbage into “bails” to reduce the risk of shipping fires at sea. Last year, Alaska Marine Lines announced it would no longer allow several Southeast communities, including Sitka, to ship garbage in open topped containers with limited compaction.

Sitka contracts its solid waste shipment with Republic Services, one of the largest waste management companies in the country. Republic ships waste from Southeast communities via Alaska Marine Lines to Seattle, then hauls the trash to a landfill in Washington. 

Following AML’s announcement, the city has been negotiating with Republic Services over who will foot the bill for the compacting equipment. City Administrator John Leach said the city has 10 years remaining of its contract with Republic Services, which put the city in a tough spot with a tight deadline. 

“If we do nothing, we will more than double our shipping rates right now. That will be passed on to the rate payer,” Leach said. “The new transport component to get non-compacted, unsealed waste continued to ship out of here due to the fire risk. The transport piece will drastically increase.” 

Most of the funding for the compactor would come from the Southeast Economic Development Fund, which was originally intended to bolster the local economy. It’s been used to fund projects at the Betty Eliason Childcare Center, Fortress of the Bear, and the former BIBCO brewery, among others.

But there’s a stipulation in city code that lets the city use the money for municipal projects if it will “lessen the rate and fee burdens on citizens.” Leach said that’s how the compactor qualifies. With a zero interest loan from the SEDA fund, rather than conventional financing, the rate increases needed to fund the project would be much smaller. Leach estimated that Sitkans would see an increase of $4 per month on their solid waste bills. 

Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz thanked Leach for his efforts in negotiating with Republic Services and “fighting a good fight” to keep Sitkans from absorbing the cost of the compactor. But said he couldn’t support the use of SEDA funding for the project. 

“In 2015, there were some changes made to allow this loan, or this fund to loan to municipal entities. I wasn’t in support of it at the time, and I’m still not in support of it,” He said. “I think the reasoning stated that it’s too hard to loan to economic entities–I think that’s reason to change our process, not to loan ourselves our money.”

“So I understand why you’re coming for this fund– it seems to be the the easy fund that everybody jumps for first because it’s there and unallocated,” he said. “I don’t want this to be the ‘Well it’s there so let’s use this’ because this essentially kills the fund.”

Eisenbeisz said he’d prefer to pay for the compactor with grant funding. But Leach said the tight timeline — with a December 31 deadline from AML — made finding grants for a compactor challenging. 

The conversation about the trash compactor brought up other issues with the transfer station and Sitka’s garbage strategy.

“We can’t look forward forever to having our waste delivered to southern Washington State,” said Joel Hanson, who called for a long-term waste management plan, during public testimony.

And Assembly member Kevin Knox wanted to see more safety measures in place at the transfer station, following the recent killing of three brown bears that had become habituated to Sitka’s municipal waste stream.  

“I would really like to see them do more of, and I think this is, really that bottom line, their responsibility, is making sure that facility remains safe for public and the wildlife,” he said. “There are some simple fixes that could have been place, given the the increased bear activity that we’ve seen.”

Assembly member Dave Miller said the city would need to develop a sustainable long-term solution to managing its solid waste, and be prepared to make those changes once the 10-year contract with Republic Services ends. And he said the risk of fires, as Sitka’s former fire chief, was something that concerned him too.

“You know, those barge fires are interesting fires, you don’t fight them very easily. When those things are stacked up full of garbage, or not even garbage, whatever is in those containers, they just burn until they burn out, basically,” Miller said. “Sitka Fire Department is gonna have a tough time with that fire if it happens here.”

Ultimately the Assembly voted 4-2 in support of borrowing $3 million from the city’s economic development fund to buy the compactor, with Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz and member Kevin Knox opposed. The issue will come before the Assembly for a second-and-final reading in November.

Assembly adopts land acknowledgement

When the Sitka Assembly met on Tuesday (10-26-21), it updated the city code to include a land acknowledgement at all future Assembly meetings. This comes just weeks after the Sitka School Board approved an Indigenous land acknowledgement for its meetings. 

The Assembly’s acknowledgement 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.”

“I think it’s important for us to, no matter who we are to…know where we came from, in our past, present and to our future,” said Assembly member Kevin Knox, who sponsored the ordinance with Kevin Mosher. “And I think this is a place where we stand and it’s something that I think is important for us to acknowledge.”

“I think it’s past time, it’s succinct and quite appropriate,” said Tory O’Connell Curran, one of several Sitkans who spoke in favor of the ordinance.

Only one person, former Assembly Member Valorie Nelson whose term ended earlier this month, called in to speak against the ordinance, saying it would promote divisiveness in the community. 

Mayor Steven Eisnebeisz said he’d presented the language to the Sitka Tribe of Alaska Tribal Council to ensure enacting the acknowledgement would be appropriate. At its last meeting, the assembly spent some time considering the language of the acknowledgement, ultimately replacing the word “thanks” with “gratitude.” Assembly Member Crystal Duncan called back to that discussion with a quote. 

“Build people up by encouragement, give people credit by acknowledgement, give people recognition by gratitude,” she said. “We’re choosing to use our words to do this very thing, so Gunalchéesh.” 

The land acknowledgement will be read by Sitka’s mayor at future meetings before calling roll. 

In addition to Sitka, land acknowledgements are current practice before public meetings in several other places across the state, including the Anchorage School District, the Mat-Su, Juneau, Ketchikan, and Fairbanks.

In other business the Sitka Assembly…

-Amended the “Port and Harbors” section of the Sitka General Code by updating Chapter 13.10 “Float Regulations” (boat launch ramp parking at Sealing Cove/Crescent Harbor). The ordinance is meant to discourage using the lots as storage lots for detached trailers, and would require a permit for 3 or 10 days. It passed 6-1 with Mayor Steven Eisenbeisz opposed on first reading

-Unanimously voted to amend the tidelands lease between the City and Borough of Sitka and Sitka Sound Science Center by adding tidelands adjacent to 834 Lincoln Street to the lease area and adjusting the lease rent

-Unanimously voted to authorize the lease of Tract A, ATS 1327 and a Portion of Tract B, ATS 1327, municipal tidelands seaward of 1406 Sawmill Creek Road to Sharon Williamson and Lisa Williamson

-Unanimously voted to reappoint Catherine Riley to a three-year term on the Planning Commission

-Unanimously approved liquor license transfer of controlling interest applications for Pioneer Liquor, Inc.

-Unanimously approved the minutes of the October 12 Assembly meeting

It also heard a special report from the city’s DC lobbying firm Blank Rome LLC, and a report from the Pathways Coalition. And it heard a presentation from KK Prussian and the Sitka Cycle Club on constructing and maintaining a pump track in Sitka.