Mayor Tom Morphet made a sign soliciting Haines Borough staff, shown here hanging at Beerfest on Saturday, May 25, 2024, in Haines, Alaska. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)
Mayor Tom Morphet made a sign soliciting Haines Borough staff, shown here hanging at Beerfest on Saturday, May 25, 2024, in Haines, Alaska. (Rashah McChesney/Chilkat Valley News)

Assembly members are looking for solutions to the borough’s staffing shortage after hearing that there haven’t been any applicants for the clerk’s job, which has been advertised for a month. 

At Tuesday’s assembly meeting, the borough allocated $400,000 to a personnel capacity building fund that would pay for potential salary increases and recruitment costs. The measure passed 4-1 despite the potential that it would be paid for by an increase in property tax rates. 

“It is important for us to get ahead of the game,” said Debra Schnabel, who introduced the motion. “This way we’re saying we’re committed to hiring a planner, we’re committed to fixing wages, we’re committed to hiring a deputy manager.”

The proposal would require an increase of about 1 mill on property assessments, according to finance director Jila Stuart. 

The borough has seen a handful of resignations over the past few months among an already small staff. The police chief and the public works director positions were recently filled. Positions for borough planner, a police officer, and a deputy manager haven’t been advertised. The planning technician, police dispatcher, and borough clerk’s positions are still vacant despite advertisements around town for weeks.

The shortage has forced borough staff to take up extra work. Police officers have been working overtime. Assistant assessor Donna Lambert, as well as Kretizer and clerk Alekka Fullerton, have been working to approve construction permits that would normally fall to the planner.

Kreitzer said the lack of a planner means construction permits are being reviewed for approval  slower than they normally would during Haines’ short, busy construction season. She warned that the situation would get worse with other staff demands throughout the summer, and that an even bigger risk was staff burnout. 

“I don’t worry only about hiring vacant positions, I also worry about the positions we have right now,” said borough manager Annette Kreitzer. “I’m a fiscal conservative. I don’t like to add staff, and I try to not add staff, but we are way underwater.” 

Fullerton plans to resign after the June 11 assembly meeting but said she was open to working on a contract basis to administer assembly meetings and the fall elections. 

The job pays up to $90,000 per year, which is comparable to other clerk positions around the state, based on numbers compiled by the Alaska Municipal League. With benefits, the salary is worth close to $140,000. 

The city clerk of Kotzebue makes between $60,000 and $80,000, while the Petersburg clerk makes between $96,000 and $108,000.

Some local salaries have fallen below those in other communities, assembly members say. Only three union employees make more than $30 an hour, which Schnabel considered insufficient to live and raise a family in Haines. Kreitzer pointed to competition from other employers like SEARHC, which has a minimum starting salary of $25 an hour. 

“Some of our salaries are competitive and some of them aren’t. Across the board raises aren’t necessarily fair,” said mayor Tom Morphet. 

Schnabel and other members have raised the idea of a salary study to come up with fair wages that the borough would have to pay to attract more applicants, but higher salaries could mean more increases in property taxes. 

“People are not gonna like that,” said Gabe Thomas, who was the sole dissenting vote on Schnabel’s proposal for the $400,000 salary fund. “This town’s gonna lose their shit if you raise the mill rate.”

Kreitzer said there could be other options to keep current employees and attract new ones, like allowing more flexible work options. She floated the idea of allowing four 10-hour days for employees and allowing some remote work. 

“I truly believe we can be more flexible,” said Kreitzer. “I want people to come work for the borough because they find it a great place to work.”

Aside from salaries, members have raised questions about the work environment at the borough office, political pressure from the public, and workloads on staff members, which are compounded by recent resignations. 

The borough’s contract tax assessor was let go by the assembly at the end of last year after facing intense pushback from the community. He suffered a heart attack late last year. 

In her resignation, Fullerton pointed to a “lack of respect” for borough staff after mayor Tom Morphet started working in the administration office last fall. 

Thomas said he thought the atmosphere in the office and uncertainty about whether manager Kreitzer’s contract will be renewed in July could explain the lack of applicants.

“You don’t stick your hand in a blender right now,” he said. 

Kreitzer, for her part, said that while political acrimony could be a factor in applications, it ultimately comes down to money. 

“There’s only so much you can do there, but ultimately what I think we’re having to look at is paying more,” she said.