By Gretchen Wehmhoff

 In a room of almost 20 people and more listening in on the telephone, Assemblyman Steve Burnham called the second special meeting of the borough finance committee to order.

Electronic alerts continued to sound as listeners entered the meeting. More than 35 people were online.

Burnham thanked those in attendance for coming and for sending letters.

“All of this is necessary and important as part of this process,” he said

 “I want to be clear at this time frame we have not made a recommendation,” said Burnham.

 The committee previously met May 28 to discuss the distribution of monies granted by the state to the Municipality of Skagway as part of the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act). 

Burnham said that the committee meetings have been focused on “how to make [the CARES Act] equitable for the whole community. So far it is only ideas.”

During public testimony residents thanked the committee for their work and shared their stories and views. Several requested meeting documents be available sooner.  Some liked the ideas of distributing equal amounts of grant funds to all residents.  Others liked the idea of a sliding scale. Some just wanted enough to take care of themselves.

 Viola Gazzara suggested they keep it simple. Due to the Covid-19 virus she is not able to work. She shared that while she didn’t want government assistance, she knew she needed it. It was a tough reality.

 “I’d much rather have my job,” she said. “I would trade anything for 40 hours of work.”

Karl Klupar expressed that the income section needed definition and was concerned that the information required on how monies were spent could be “an onerous invasion of privacy.”

He was concerned the CARES Act language didn’t look to help the community get ready for the 2021 season.

 Lynn Cameron asked the city to provide someone to help residents get through potentially complicated application process.

 One speaker who did not identify himself, requested the committee look at net income versus gross income, as that was what the family had to work with to pay bills while Jaime Bricker highlighted that the CARES Act included the role of economic security and the current proposed sliding scale might not be effective in that area.

Business owner Mike Healy wanted the committee to remember that with cruise ship income not arriving until May of 2021, the distribution should take care of the people who live in Skagway all winter. 

 “Come January and February, the people who live here are going to be hurting the most,” he said.

  Healy said his biggest stress right now is that he can’t afford to pay his employees through the year and he hopes that [the grants] will get them through. He is concerned that while he normally keeps his business open at a loss through the winter, under the current situation, he isn’t sure he can do that this year. He asked the city to consider grants and low interest or zero loans with deferred payments for businesses.

 He also noted the arguing within the community regarding seasonal and year-round businesses. He said all businesses are important, but emphasized taking care of those who remain open all year.

“We [year-round businesses] are what keeps people interested in living here throughout the winter, what keeps families here, what keeps the student enrollment up at the school.”

Robert Murphy, business owner, doesn’t believe the suggested income determination addresses the impact of the COVID-19 CARES Act and that “protecting us this winter should be a priority.”

“I’m spending my savings right now to keep my people employed,” said Murphy.

Deb Potter spoke next.

 “If this is meant to be a stimulus then it should be a stimulus. It is money that is going to stay in Skagway and it’s money that is going to help stimulate businesses in the winter.”

Potter felt the PFD requirement would be problematic, citing that a person who moved to Skagway last winter might not have been able to file and some people, for one reason or another, don’t regularly file for the PFD. She urged the committee to take their time.

KayLynn Howard was concerned the sliding scale would not be equitable and that a lot of residents don’t work 40 hours a week, but many work more than 20 hours per week.

“I’d originally planned on working three jobs this season to get through the winter. Now that isn’t happening,” she said.

Jan Wrentmore spoke briefly to support “money circulating in the winter.” She thanked the committee for “grappling” with the issue.

After public testimony, Assemblymember Dave Brena said he had read all of the letters submitted to the committee up to the start of the meeting and had spoken with a number of friends. He acknowledged the varying circumstances of community members.

 “My concern has always been that it [the original draft plan] is not needs based,” said Brena referring to the original plan.

“Even though 7.4 Million sounds like a lot of money, it really doesn’t take us through next season under a lot of scenarios,” he said.

Brena agreed with speakers that the PFD should not be a requirement, but that it could be one of several options to prove Skagway residency. He also suggested the income section be based on net income and include assistance to businesses.

According to the CARES Act distribution amounts listed from the state, there is an additional $290 million designated to small business relief outside of the direct municipal relief. The first come, first served program will be run through The Alaska Housing Finance Corporation (AHFC), the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA) and the Investments Section of the Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development will temporarily bolster their existing loan programs to provide support to struggling small businesses. 

This program was not mentioned at the meeting on Tuesday.

Assemblymember Jay Burnham, on the phone and still under quarantine for a few days, felt the sliding scale would help those who need it most. He suggested that a minimum of two temporary positions be created to assist in administering the funds and applications.

He also suggested funding student lunches be considered over the school year.

Borough treasurer Heather Rodig questioned the potential problems if businesses were to use net income and individual payments were based on gross income.

The first payment of $2.9 million to the municipality was received on Tuesday. Borough Manager Brad Ryan said 80 percent needed to be spent prior to the next installment. All of the funds have to be sent out by December.

“There are a lot of things about the CARES Act that are complicated,” said Ryan.

He cautioned that there may be restrictions for some businesses if they have applied for other programs. Ryan mentioned that if the Skagway Traditional Council (STC) moves forward with a stimulus package, residents can apply for the MOS funds or the STC funding, but not both.

            Ryan reminded the committee that there wasn’t a guarantee that CPV grant money  would be accessible as hoped to help extend the assistance into the first three months of 2021.

The committee moved to forward the draft recommendation proposed amendment to the Assembly for consideration and discussion.

The next Finance Committee is scheduled for 4 p.m. on June 4. The call-in number for this meeting is 1-888-204-5987, access code 5085533#.


The meeting agenda and documents can be found HERE.