Ketchikan City Council members voted unanimously Thursday to hire Rain Coast Data to to prepare a document to demonstrate the financial losses that the city has realized with the lack of a 2020 cruise ship season, and also directed Ketchikan City Manager Karl Amylon to prepare a contract to hire a federal lobbyist.
Both decisions were made during the council's regular meeting to support actions that aim to ease the financial strain on the city's budget brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Amylon told council members that he participated recently in a meeting with Gov. Mike Dunleavy's Acting Chief of Staff Randy Ruaro regarding the city's financial needs in light of the direct allocation that the city is anticipating to receive under the American Rescue Plan Act. Those funds of $1.7 million will not be sufficient to support the city's needs after a loss of $33 million caused by the pandemic, Amylon said.
"One of the things that Mr. Ruaro recommended that we do, is document the economic harm that the Ketchikan community has experienced because of COVID," Amylon told council members.
Hiring Rain Coast Data to prepare that information would provide the document that could be submitted to the state. Amylon wrote in a memo attached to the March 18 meeting agenda that the State of Alaska is expected to receive $1.02 billion in relief funds from the federal government, but that "it is unclear whether Governor Dunleavy intends to distribute any of these financial resources to municipalities to address the effects of the pandemic at the local level."
The decision to seek a federal lobbyist in order to help the city secure funds for city projects through the newly revitalized congressional earmarks program had robust council member support.
"Right now, I think, as the community of Ketchikan, we're going to have to fight for every penny that we can potentially get," City of Ketchikan Mayor Bob Sivertsen said.
In a memo attached to Thursday's meeting agenda, City Finance Director Michelle Johansen listed several ways that the federal funds could be used by municipalities, if secured.
Funding gaps could be filled, and money also could be distributed to the community. Those funds could be used for projects such as those addressing water, sewer, broadband projects and other infrastructure, libraries, museums, cultural programs, hospitality sectors and transportation systems, in addition to housing assistance.
Specifically addressing earmark projects, Johansen wrote that the city would need to contact the Alaska congressional delegation to submit a list of projects that need funding as soon as possible, so the delegates can prioritize their earmarks before the congressional deadline of April 30.
Amylon said that a draft contract to hire a federal lobbyist would be created by staff and presented at the council's meeting on April 15.
A plan by city staff to open the public restrooms on Berth 3 downtown on April 12 sparked much discussion at Thursday's meeting.
It was not an item that was up for a vote, but was listed under the Manager's Report section of the agenda.
The $75,000 planned to pay for two employees to monitor the restrooms into October would come from the Port Enterprise Fund, Amylon said. Council Members Riley Gass, Abby Bradberry and Judy Zenge expressed their opposition to the expenditure in the light of recent hiring freezes and two potential layoffs of city employees to save money.
Amylon explained that the $75,000 would come from a separate fund — not the General Government fund that pays for the employees that may be laid off.
The $75,000 would be made available for that expenditure with the recent agreement made with Alaska state staff that would allow the City of Ketchikan to use about $1 million in funds that previously were denied to the city because they were originally deemed Port of Ketchikan COVID-19 mitigation funds only.
With likely no large cruise vessels expected to visit the port in 2021, and the $1 million tagged with a requirement to be spent by the end of June, City of Ketchikan officials have made an agreement — verbal only at this time, Amylon emphasized — that the city would now be allowed to use that $1 million to pay for port bond debt, loosening up that amount to cover other port expenses such as opening the public restrooms with the required staffing.
The issue of whether the public restrooms should be opened for the summer was decided to be placed on the meeting agenda for the April 15 meeting.
Also set for discussion at the next meeting is the issue of whether parking enforcement is now active in the city, and whether it should be continued. The parking enforcement job position is under consideration for cutting as a budget reduction measure.
Downtown business owner Julie Steiner spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting about her own experiences as well as other business owners' in which people had been leaving their cars in front of businesses for long periods of time recently. That causes a loss of customers for those businesses she said.
Amylon said that he would talk with Ketchikan Police Chief Joe White about the issue and clarify whether enforcement currently is active.
The meeting still was in progress at presstime Thursday. A followup article is planned.