Assembly approves WMC housing idea, keeps tax-free days
At its regular meeting Tuesday the City and Borough Assembly approved a request by Wrangell Medical Center to pursue a housing assistance grant of up to $550,000 to build a quadruplex for its staff.
Hospital CEO Robert Rang explained the amount was the maximum provided by Teacher, Health Professional and Public Safety Housing Program grants through Alaska Housing Finance Corporation. As a four-unit housing complex would likely cost more than that, he said the hospital would approach the Assembly with the specifics of additional funds needed as plans for construction were developed.
Rang said the extra units could house up to two or three staff members apiece, and could help alleviate WMC’s strain in finding housing for new or prospective hires.
“We’ve lost opportunities in recruiting for work,” he told the Assembly. “Our housing market in town is very tight.”
Assembly member Daniel
Blake agreed, recalling a housing
needs study conducted on behalf of the city presented in March, which indicated available housing is almost
nonexistent on the island, particularly for renters. The overall vacancy rate even between seasons stood at
one percent, with no availabilities even then for either one- or three-bedroom apartments. Other entities in town have taken steps to provide housing for employees, including Trident Seafoods’ bunkhouse and a renovation project on Front Street Alaska Island Community Services is undertaking.
Rang said the move would help the hospital as it transitions from traveling nursing staff to permanent ones. Five permanent nurses will be starting this month and in September, with
another expected in December, reducing WMC’s total traveling staff to two. Rang estimated the shift could help save the hospital $200,000 a year in
housing, travel and agency overhead costs.
To mitigate competition with local landlords, Rang said the units would only be available to hospital staff, and rent would be kept at fair market rates. Ideally, the units would provide a place for incoming staff to transition from to more permanent arrangements. A site has not yet been determined for the quadruplex.
In other hospital matters,
the Assembly also requested that Rang and the WMC board provide a
detailed report on the outsourcing of billing services to consultancy TruBridge, which took place last summer. Members had requested such a report after six months as a contingency to their approval, but one has not since been provided.
Otherwise, the hospital is doing fine, Rang reported. It has been passing its spot inspections, and its long-term care unit earned a five-star rating with Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a turnaround from previous reviews. The hospital also ended its fiscal year with about $300,000 more than it had budgeted for.
In other Assembly business, on second reading a proposal to reduce the city’s sanctioned sales tax-free days from two per year to just one was rejected unanimously. Members Mark Mitchell and David Powell in particular had said local shopkeepers had expressed concerns to them that the days were important to sales.
Borough Manager Jeff Jabusch explained the suggestion to trim down the days was one of reducing expense and raising revenue, in light of city job positions being left unfilled for budget concerns. He estimated one tax-free day cost the city between $20,000 and $25,000 in lost revenue – not considerable by itself, but one of numerous cost-saving measures proposed for this year’s budget. The Wrangell Chamber of Commerce had also been fine with the proposal, and Blake pointed out there were no concerned members of the public in the audience, either at Tuesday’s meeting or the Assembly’s previous one.
Following the official end of the city’s call for water-saving measures (see adjoining article), Assembly member Stephen Prysunka requested that Jabusch prepare a process report explaining what all had went wrong. The manager replied he could put one together, but care would be needed when discussing any matters that could pertain to personnel.
“It was like a perfect storm,” Jabusch said, with an array of factors contributing to the inopportune shortage. “Everything that could go wrong went wrong.”
“Whatever the reason, we need to figure out why and how to address that,” said Mitchell. He pointed out the matter could be discussed within executive session as well.
The Assembly approved on final reading ordinances raising the fees for building permits and cemetery fees, with clerk Kim Lane explaining the latter change was meant to bring rates in line with administrative costs. On first reading, an ordinance amending the procedures for absentee voting by mail was also passed.
One item added to the agenda at the last minute was to adopt a form letter put forward by Assembly member Julie Decker, an 11-page document
listing objections to the Tongass Transition Plan Draft Record of Decision. The city had previously filed a similar letter on June 13, and Jabusch said the lengthier follow-up document was received Friday, after the Tuesday meeting’s agenda packets were already sent out. As such, the letter was not ready to distribute until Monday, and several Assembly members did not receive a copy until the evening meeting.
Decker explained the important
part of the letter was its concluding three paragraphs, which charge the
United States Forest Service’s process for putting forward the transition
plan violates the National Environmental Policy Act. She said a decision on the document was urgent because the deadline for its receipt was August 30.
Several members expressed
discomfort at having to vote for something on such short notice. Assembly member Becky Rooney admitted the language of the document was
dense, and Prysunka agreed that after three hours of meetings, he was not prepared to freshly tackle such a complex issue.
“I honestly don’t know whether I support it or not, because I just got this tonight,” he said.
“It’s a complex thing,” Jabusch commented.
Rather than holding a decision for a special session later, the letter was put to a vote, passing 5-2, with Prysunka and Mayor David Jack against.