Petersburg is starting a new program that could make it easier for downtown businesses to install fire suppression sprinklers.

The borough assembly Monday approved changes to the current year’s budget. Among the changes was a commitment of up to 200-thousand dollars from the borough’s economic fund. Some of that money could be deposited in a bank in Petersburg to guarantee low-interest loans for downtown building owners to put in sprinkler systems.

“Even though we don’t have any applicants to the program, we had to pick a number and say, in case somebody did apply for it, how much money should we restrict just in case to meet any requirements there,” explained borough manager Steve Giesbrecht. “That’s the number we came up with. We’re not going to spend it necessarily, wouldn’t have to spend it in most cases but it’s then restricted in the economic fund.”

Fire damaged a building off main street owned by seafood processing company Trident in January of 2008. (KFSK file photo)

Fire damaged a building off main street owned by seafood processing company Trident in January of 2008. (KFSK file photo)

If a building owner defaults on a loan, the borough’s economic fund money would be used to repay that debt. The program was an idea of fire chief Doug Welde. He approached the board of the Petersburg Economic Development Council, which in turn recommended it to the borough. As proposed, the low-interest loans would be available for three years but could be extended.

Petersburg’s downtown area has seen fires in the business district in the past. Many of the buildings are close together, or connected, and pose a risk of fire spreading to more than one structure.

In other news, the state’s budget pinch could mean less time in jail for people awaiting their day in court.
That was one of the items reported by the borough manager Monday.

“Municipalities across the state are starting to see evidence of pressure on the courts and prosecutors to reduce pre-trial incarceration,” Giesbrecht told the borough assembly. “They’re reporting reduced bail amounts set at arraignment, much lower than in the past. And prosecutors have been directed to seek lower bail amounts to lower the number of bed days in jails. We don’t know how that’s gonna turn out but it seems to be a growing trend.”

Petersburg and other municipalities operate jails for short-term incarceration and receive money for that from the state. That funding was cut this year and additional reductions are anticipated. Other budget cuts are impacting the Alaska State Troopers and their ability to transport prisoners from community jails to larger, longer-term prisons.
Meanwhile, Giesbrecht also told the assembly this week that the region’s presiding Superior court judge Trevor Stephens has ordered courts in Southeast to be closed for additional days to cut costs. Giesbrecht expected that move to slow down trial dates and have an impact on civil cases. Earlier this year the court system announced statewide closures for courts the day after Thanksgiving and the day before Christmas. Staff will be on unpaid leave those days to reduce spending. The state plans to review the closures early next year and see if additional days are needed.

In other news from the borough assembly meeting, some additional Petersburg streets could see some paving work next year.

Giesbrecht told the assembly he wants to get pricing from contracting company Secon to do paving of borough streets in 2016.

“The state’s already paying to mobilize the asphalt plant here,” he explained. “It’s about a 100-thousand dollar cost to get one here. And this is likely the last big state roads program for some time. So we wanna take advantage of that when they’re here. We’ll be bringing this to the assembly with more details, probably Januaryish, to basically say we wanna use our roads fund and possibly even some money that we had set aside for the Rasmus Enge bridge to pull that funding and put it on roads, take advantage of when the contractors are actually here in town.”

Secon will be completing the state’s 8.3-million dollar paving, sidewalk and drainage replacement on Haugen and South Nordic drives in 2016. Giesbrecht said the local paving work would depend on prices from the contractor and the borough having the money to cover those costs. He also reported that the public works department is trying to grade and repair some gravel streets this fall while temperatures remain warm enough. As far as winter maintenance, the Petersburg Indian Association will not be helping the borough with snow removal from local sidewalks this winter. Giesbrecht said borough staff will continue clearing sidewalks but will miss the help of the tribal government workers.