Local voters could be deciding some changes to the Petersburg borough charter this fall. Petersburg’s borough assembly has started a discussion about possible charter changes that could impact sales and property tax rate decisions, membership on the planning and zoning commission and other areas.

The borough charter was drafted by a committee of area residents and ratified by voters with the creation of the borough in 2013. A charter is essentially a constitution outlining the powers of the local government and how that government functions. Any changes to that document require approval of borough voters.

“So are we starting to and I believe this the start of the process is compiling a list of charter changes that we want for the 2017?” asked Mayor Mark Jensen at a meeting Monday.

“We are,” responded borough clerk Debbie Thompson. “And so any department heads or whoever that had things that they saw that they thought might need to be changed they’re getting that information to me. We’re trying to just write something up just for you guys to look and then you can direct us as to what changes you want to be put in ordinance form so we can get that started in order to get anything on the ballot.”
Borough staff prepared some possible changes for consideration. One would give the assembly the power to change sales taxes by ordinance, instead of sending the issue to a vote of the public. Another would be to remove the 10 mil cap on property taxes and allow the assembly to grant tax exemptions, instead of voters.
Another change would help with a possible transfer of the state dock on Kupreanof to the city of Kupreanof. That would allow the assembly to decide which powers or services could be extended in portions of the borough.

Another change would have positions on the planning and zoning commission filled by assembly appointment rather than election.
Yet another would do away with a section of the charter than recognizes the Thomas Bay Power Authority, a joint organization of Wrangell and Petersburg that is defunct.
The mayor and assembly were opposed to some of the proposed amendments.

Nancy Strand wanted to stick with an elected planning and zoning commission. She pointed out that the assembly appoints people anyway to fill vacant seats if no one runs for those spots. “If we wanted to appoint everyone for the membership we just have to wait until they don’t show up to be voted on,” Strand said. “So we should continue with them being elected.”

Borough manager Steve Giesbrecht asked for assembly direction on and gave some examples of some tax issues that could go fall in the assembly’s lap instead of going to voters. “What we need from a staff perspective is do you wanna go fight this battle on any of these? You know we’ve had this discussion numerous times about senior citizens exemption. You know we don’t do point-of-sale sales tax here.”

Local voters have supported few proposed changes to sales taxes in recent elections and some proposals have been voted down overwhelmingly.
Assembly members generally did not support taking sales tax decisions away from voters but did think they needed to look further at some tax exemptions and limits. The assembly may hold a special meeting to pour through possible charter changes.

Earlier in the meeting local resident John Murgas opposed the changes that were suggested, especially the ones put decisions in the hands of the assembly instead of voters. “That’s a lot of authority given to seven people only that’s presently given to the general public by ballot. In the past few years there have been multiple issues that the then city council majority favored but were overwhelmingly defeated by public vote. I think you have a good democratic system as is. Please do not diminish it.”

The assembly will consider three readings of ordinance for any proposed charter amendments. Those proposals have to start assembly review no later than May 15 to make it on this year’s ballot.