Sitka’s disaster response bills approach half-million mark

Sitka has spent almost a half-million dollars since August on emergency cleanup, and is counting on having most of that reimbursed by the state.

City administrative officer Jay Sweeney gave the assembly a rundown of emergency expenses, in the wake of back-to-back disasters last month.

The grand total so far is $459,000, itemized as follows:

The Jarvis St. diesel spill: $71,500.
The Kramer Avenue landslide: $314,000.
The Sawmill Creek Road landslide: $37,000.
All other slides and floods on August 18: $37,000.

The expenses have added up quickly — literally doubling in the last 20 days. But Sweeney was not worried that Sitka would run low on cash.

“We have the anticipation that the vast majority of the expenditures related to the emergency — the landslide and flood response — will be fully reimbursed by the state of Alaska. We’ve yet to receive any reimbursement, but anticipate full recovery.”

Gov. Bill Walker issued an emergency disaster declaration on August 28, authorizing up to $1-million in state assistance for the city and individuals affected by the slides and flooding. The declaration does not cover the fuel spill on Jarvis St, which occurred on August 15, three days before the devastating slides.

City administrator Mark Gorman recommended transferring money from Sitka’s emergency reserves to the Electric Department to cover that expense.

In other business Tuesday, the assembly eliminated the break on utility rates the city’s given in the past to residents who go away on vacation for several months.

Once upon a time Sitkans could apply for so-called “vacation rates” on water, sewer, and trash if they were gone between 30 days and four months.

Vacation rates were one-quarter of the regular bill.

Testifying from the public, Sue Riggs urged the assembly to consider that many people left Sitka for medical care, and that vacation rates were actually a form of compassionate support.

The argument didn’t land with the ordinance sponsors, however. Matt Hunter again discussed the idea that water and garbage bills supported infrastructure, regardless of how much was used.

Michelle Putz believed in extending compassion toward all Sitkans facing increasing utility rates.

“What we’re really trying to do is find whatever way we can to reduce the cost for everyone in Sitka, because every cost is going up. So I would rather take off a dollar for everybody eventually on every bill than necessarily have to figure out individuals. So I’m happy with it the way it is.”

The assembly approved the elimination of vacation rates unanimously.

And finally, city administrator Mark Gorman reported that negotiations with the state over the future of Halibut Point Recreation Area were unsuccessful.

On July 1 the Division of Natural Resources put all seven state park units in Sitka into so-called “passive management.” The National Park Service jumped in to manage Castle Hill and Old Sitka through Alaska Day, and the city was considering taking over Halibut Point — but only if the state chipped in some cash.

“We requested $50,000 a year for maintenance, and they turned that down and said they would give us a new toilet.”

Gorman said that the city’s next course of action would be to ask for funding for the park through a legislative grant.

The Sitka Assembly will meet next in special session this Thursday at 6 PM to distribute grant funding to local non-profits. The meeting will be held in the assembly’s temporary quarters in Room 229 of the University of Alaska Southeast campus.