On May 6, Bethel City Council introduced an ordinance to spend $60,000 of city funds to keep the homeless shelter open throughout the summer. In the same meeting, the council approved a salary of as much as $140,000 for a new police chief.
Bethel Winter House President Jon Cochrane made his appeal for funding at the council meeting on May 5. He said that the coronavirus pandemic has forced other organizations to close their doors, adding new challenges for Bethel's homeless population.
“They can't go to the hospital, they can't go to public restrooms inside of stores and restaurants,” Cochrane said. “They're pretty much being turned away from everywhere that they try to go.”
Cochrane said that anywhere between 10 and 40 guests visit the Winter House daily. Currently, the shelter offers a place to go to the bathroom in addition to free breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Cochrane said that most lunches are provided by donations from the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation cafeteria, and all dinners are cooked by volunteers in Bethel. He also announced that Alaska Airlines had donated over 2,000 pounds of snacks that can no longer be served on flights.
The city administration said that it had already donated $15,000 to Winter House under powers granted by the emergency ordinance. The city has also set up several port-a-potties around town.
Fire Chief Bill Howell said that he had discussions about the homeless shelter with the state when he was Acting City Manager. In those discussions, he said that there were concerns that a homeless shelter could be a dangerous hub during a coronavirus pandemic.
“Putting large amounts of people in a open room is not a way to curb the spread,” Howell said.
Cochrane said that the cots at Bethel Winter House are spaced 6 feet apart, and that the shelter gives people an opportunity to regularly wash their hands. He said that the facility has also been handing out fresh face masks daily.
Council member Alyssa Leary agreed that a large communal space was not ideal, but said that access to handwashing, masks, and meals outweighed the risks.
“You just try to have as many safeguards in place as possible, because that's still going to be a better situation than if they had nowhere else to go,” Leary said.
Council members also agreed that it was likely, although not promised, that the federal CARES Act would reimburse the city's $60,000 because COVID-19 is making it more necessary to operate Winter House in the summer. Cochrane said that the funds would keep the shelter open for at least 90 days.
The city council then turned its attention to the search for a new police chief, which has been going on for almost a year. With Acting Police Chief Amy Davis also leaving the department, filling the position has become more urgent.
Davis reported that the hiring process for her successor has not been going well. She said that the sticking point with most candidates has been the $114,275 salary, which is lower than what the police chief makes in Whittier, Nome, or Kotzebue. The salaries for police chiefs in those towns are $145,000, $125,000, and $115,500, respectively.
“You’re going to have to pay more if you want a decent applicant,” Davis said. “You're definitely going to get what you pay for.”
The ordinance proposed bumping up the budgeted salary for Bethel's police chief to $140,000, an increase of $25,725. Council member Hugh Dyment suggested that the current economic situation should be a time of austerity, not higher spending. Council member Michelle DeWitt argued that $140,000 is just what’s going in the budget, and that the city manager could negotiate a salary lower than that. She also said that leaving the police chief position open longer could cost the city more in the long run. The vote was 6-1 in favor of the budgeted salary increase, with council member Alyssa Leary opposing.
There is a correction to an earlier version of this story that stated that the Bethel City Council approved the ordinance to spend $60,000 on homeslessness funds. Council actually only introduced that ordinance and it will vote on the ordinance in its May 12 council meeting.