Ketchikan’s City Council is set to consider allocating more federal COVID relief funds to local programs. That’s after federal lawmakers extended the deadline to spend the aid money until the end of the year. Now, the question is how much to spend on government services and how much to allocate to city residents struggling financially amidst the pandemic.
During budget deliberations, Ketchikan city officials told council members that they needed to find $1.5 million to fill a projected shortfall in the city budget. That’s because officials aren’t sure what the 2021 cruise season will look like. The city depends on sales tax and port fee revenue from cruise tourists to pay for services.
The projected $1.5 million shortfall assumes that Ketchikan and its city-owned port will see about half as many cruise tourists as it did in 2019. That estimate also accounts for the projected loss of some passengers to a new privately-owned cruise ship dock at Ward Cove.
After initially considering layoffs, the council voted to put about $1.2 million in unspent federal CARES Act money toward first responders’ salaries late last year. At the time, federal law required that any money that hadn’t been spent by Dec. 30 of last year be returned to the U.S. Treasury.
The council also decided not to fill 10 vacant city positions and institute other cost-cutting measures.
Now, the city’s finance director, Michelle Johansen, calculates that the combined effect of those measures means council members found more than $2.1 million in the budget — roughly $660,000 more than the $1.5 million city staff recommended.
And because Congress voted to extend the deadline to spend CARES Act money to the end of this year, city officials say the council could put that $660,000 or so towards relief programs for residents — like the city’s rent and mortgage assistance program. That program provided $1,200 checks for residents who faced financial hardship because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
But City Manager Karl Amylon says in a memo to the council that the city’s estimates of cruise traffic may be overly optimistic. Amylon says it’s his “strong belief that passenger counts for 2021 could be significantly less than the projections” laid out in the budget. He urges the city’s elected leaders to take a conservative approach, but does not say specifically how much council members should keep in reserve.
In other business, the City Council is scheduled to discuss a number of questions about the future of the cruise industry in Ketchikan.
One of those is a discussion about the so-called “Bubble Committee.” That’s a body made up of city officials, business leaders and residents tasked with developing ideas to allow cruise ships to resume calling on Ketchikan without spreading COVID-19.
The Ketchikan City Council meets at 7 p.m. Thursday in the Ted Ferry Civic Center. The full agenda is available online, and the meeting will be broadcast on local cable-channels and live-streamed at the city’s website. Members of the public have an opportunity to weigh in at the beginning of the meeting. We’ve got the details and links at KRBD.org.