Common Council mulls plastic bag ban, passes budget amendments, welcomes youth member
The Nome Common Council met last Monday, Feb. 17 for a rescheduled regular meeting and tackled a wide range of issues from FY20 budget amendments, an ordinance to adopt the uniform code to capture online sale tax revenue and first readings including an ordinance to adopt a ten percent increase in the port tariff.
In a swift manner, the Council led by Acting Mayor Jerald Brown worked through the loaded agenda.
The Council reacted to Nancy Analoak’s letter asking for harsher punishments of those who furnish alcohol to minors by asking the Interim Chief of Police for recommendations and to search out solutions by statewide policing organizations.
The council received a letter from Nome-Beltz Jr./Sr. High School principal Jay Thomas nominating Molly Kenick as student representative to the Nome Common Council. The council unanimously voted to accept her nomination. Kenick was not present and the council will hold a swearing-in ceremony at the next meeting.
In response to a year of reckoning that forced the Nome Police Department and the City to face allegations of inadequate sexual assault and violent crime investigations, Nome Eskimo Community sent a resolution it passed to the City of Nome, urging the city “to do what it takes to protect and improve public safety.” The resolution states “Nome, Alaska is in the midst of a public safety crisis and facing a public emergency given The Nome Police Department has not had qualified and consistent leadership which has led to growing concerns that necessary improvements cannot be made.”
City Manager Glenn Steckman informed the Council that he has met with NEC leadership and briefed them on the status of NPD. Looking to Interim Chief Mike Heintzelman in the audience, Steckman said there have been 11,000 calls for service at NPD last year, which was up 3,000 calls compared to previous years. He said the City aims to employ another investigator to tackle the cold cases. Currently, there are eight full time police officers, two Sergeants – one also works as investigator — no Lieutenant and one Chief. This year alone, NPD recorded 80 cases, with 20 of those being active cases. Steckman said that improvements are being made and the FY21 budget will reflect the City’s intent to bring NPD up to speed. At a later point, the council amended the FY2020 budget and Steckman explained that major changes were done in the NPD budget. He explained that budget increases in NPD were covered by cutting expenses in other departments to fund NPD for the remainder of the year. The council voted unanimously, in its second reading, to amend the FY2020 budget from an approved budget of $14,185,322 to a budget just shy of $14.5 million, reflecting an increase of $305,031.
Also going through a second reading and passing were amendments for the FY20 school debt service fund budget, the special revenue funds budget, the capital project funds budget, the port of Nome fund budget and the port of Nome capital projects fund budget.
Ordinances that passed through the first reading included an ordinance to adopt the Alaska Remote Sellers Sales Tax Code. City Clerk Bryant Hammond explained to the Nugget that the state of Alaska has no sales tax, but each municipality has the right to levy sales tax. With the rise of online retailers that do not have brick and mortar stores in the community and a Supreme Court ruling that allowed cities to levy sales tax on mail orders, the question arose how each municipality would be retrieving sales tax from those sellers. The City of Nome in November became member of the Alaska Remote Sellers Sales Tax Commission, a statewide commission that collects such sales tax from online sellers for a ten percent fee and then sends the City of Nome a check for the sales tax owed. This ordinance would bring the city in line with the so-called Uniform Code. The City has until May 5, 2020 to adopt the Uniform Code. The Council voted unanimously to adopt the ordinance. A second reading plus a public hearing on the ordinance will take place at the March 9 council meeting.
Also passed through the first reading, with second reading and a public hearing scheduled for March 9, were ordinances to adopt the Port of Nome Tariff increase; to approve the 2019 and 2020 operations and maintenance budgets for NJUS; to approve the 2019 and 2020 capital investment budgets for NJUS, and to approve a resolution revising the state legislative priority No. 2 to read: Priority 2) Support of Port of Nome projects a) full support of statewide port construction package; b) Funding for solid waste incineration facility design and foundation construction; c) Funding to complete design o an Arctic Deep Draft Port at Nome.
During NJUS manager report, Ken Morton said that the cold weather was evidenced in an increase of 100 kW of power output as consumers used more electricity to keep their homes warm and also an increase from 350 gallons of water per minute use to 450 gallons per minute. “People let their faucets or toilets run to prevent freezing pipes,” Morton said.
John Handeland added to remind folks that NSEDC again offers an energy subsidy of $575 per eligible household, with sign ups being accommodated on February 25, 26, 27 at City Hall.
In the City Manager report, Glenn Steckman said that on Saturday, Feb. 22, the Public Safety Committee meets and interviews candidates for the position of Chief of Police. He also said he aims to put all city personnel through additional training, including cultural training.
Prior to the regular meeting, a work session took place to discuss the FY21 budget and a proposed ban on plastic bags. As the council asks for projections on revenue, on the topic of city sales taxes collected from online retailers, Jerald Brown, acting mayor, asked City Clerk Bryant Hammond if staff has an estimate how much sales tax is generated by collection from online retailers. Hammond said he doesn’t know yet. Brown clarified that staff cannot publicly disclose sales tax information by vendors, i.e. singling out Amazon and making public how much sales tax is generated by the online retail giant. Brown said that the topic had been raised on Facebook, where speculation ensued on how the sales tax revenue would increase city coffers and could affect the mil rate. “We never got a handle on it, the community as a whole has not gotten a handle on the sales tax issue from online retailers,” he said. The City began receiving sales tax from online retailers around January 2019. Brown asked Hammond to look into a ballpark estimate “to the nearest $100,000” as the council needs some projections on sales tax revenue, as they are tackling the budget and depending on the projections, needing to adjust the mil rate.
A budget worksheet with a five-year comparison in numbers revealed that the actual FY18/19 expenditures of NPD were a $2,381,021 compared to the prior year of $2,120,194.
Next, discussion moved to the potential ban on single-use plastic bags. The first 33 pages of the packet were provide by the Village of Solomon, which proposed to the City of Nome to adopt a “Ban the Bag” campaign via ordinance to eliminate plastic bags and reduce plastic pollution in the region. According to the communication sent by Deilah Johnson on behalf of the Village of Solomon, the states of California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Vermont and Oregon have banned plastic bags, but also Alaskan municipalities such as Hooper Bay, Unalaska, Seward, Homer, Wasilla, Palmer, Bethel, Kodiak, Unalakleet, Brevig Mission, St. Michael, Anchorage and Fairbanks. Several pieces of legislation, on the national and state level have been introduced to address the plastic debris in the marine environment and prohibit the use of disposable shopping bags. Council members Doug Johnson, Meghan Topkok, Mark Johnson and Jerald Brown — Councilman Adam Martinson and Councilwoman Jennifer Reader were absent and excused — discussed first if there is an appetite in the community to support the ban of single use plastic bags and if so, how far the ban should reach. Should it include plastic straws? Clam shell takeout Styrofoam containers? Styrofoam cups? According to City Manager Steckman, he approached the two grocery stores in Nome, and said AC had no problem with it, but he hasn’t heard back from Carrs Safeway Hanson store managers as they had to run the request “up the corporate ladder”. He said an initial inquiry at the Nome Chamber of Commerce didn’t signal a problem, either, but he has not heard back yet from the director if vendors may object. Steckman said from a city standpoint, the blowing bags at the Beam Road landfill do pose a problem as the landfill operators rather not have to spend man hours on picking up bags from the surrounding bushes on the tundra. Community member Charlie Lean commented that he does get red in the face when he’s guiding guests around to see the beauty of Nome and then comes by the landfill “where every bush is festooned with a bag.”
Brown suggested to look at other communities to figure out what bans have worked and which didn’t. Councilman Doug Johnson said during a recent trip to Anchorage, he observed that people did make that transition to either reusable shopping bags or paperbags. The issue was raised that rather banning plastic bags, there could be a plastic bag “tax” raised, and have shoppers pay a certain amount per plastic shopping bag rather than outlaw them. Zoe Okleasik, community member, commented that a lot of foodstamp or SNAP recipients should be exempt from additional costs, as that would create an added hardship. She also suggested to make the ban simple by just banning plastic bags and straws, and add on other items at a later date.
The council agreed to hold another work session on the topic.