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Southeast Alaska News

Mt. Edgecumbe Invitational to rock Sitka this weekend

Wed, 2014-01-15 09:30

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Andrew Friske, athletic director at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, says 19 teams will be in Sitka this weekend for the Mt. Edgecumbe Invitational Basketball Tournament. Although this is a tournament for adult basketball teams from around the state, all proceeds benefit the activities programs at Mt. Edgecumbe High School. Games start Wednesday evening (1-15-14) on two courts at the BJ McGillis Gym on campus. Tournament passes and individual game tickets available at the gate.

Tribal health facilities may get boost from $1.1 trillion federal spending bill

Wed, 2014-01-15 01:04

Alaska’s tribal facilities could get a much-needed financial boost from a $1.1 trillion spending bill being considered in Congress.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the ranking Republican on the Interior Department subcommittee, announced Monday that the department’s proposed budget fully funds operations costs at tribally-managed hospitals and clinics; it also includes $66.2 million to staff Alaska’s six new tribal facilities.

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Anchorage schools plan to add extra class

Wed, 2014-01-15 01:04

ANCHORAGE — The Anchorage School District has told local high school principals to prepare to add an extra period to the day in the next school year, giving students seven classes instead of six.

The school district is bracing for budget cuts, and educators said adding an additional class would allow schools to do more with less. It also would shorten the length of classes and add additional students per day for teachers, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Next year’s budget will be released next week. It includes about $23 million in cuts.

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Old Kodiak police station being demolished

Wed, 2014-01-15 01:04

KODIAK — The building that once housed most city offices in Kodiak is being torn down.

Demolition work is underway on the old Kodiak Police Department building, the Kodiak Daily Mirror reported.

The city bought the building on Mill Bay Road in 1956, and it housed the police department, jail, courthouse and city offices before police became the sole occupants.

Most of the items the police department wanted to save have been taken to the new location, which opened in 2010. Among those was the pole with a red light that was on top of the building.

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Troopers: Wasilla man arrested after standoff

Wed, 2014-01-15 01:03

ANCHORAGE — A 42-year-old Wasilla man was arrested early Tuesday after a standoff in which he used a slingshot, Alaska State Troopers said.

Jose A. Pacheco was charged with seven counts of assault on law enforcement officers following his 1:30 a.m. arrest. No one was injured in the incident.

Troopers and Wasilla police responded to a home Monday night after a report of multiple gunshots and possible victims.

After several hours of negotiation and standoff, Pacheco shot several times at officers, according to troopers.

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24/7 Breathalyzer makes sense for repeat DUI offenders

Wed, 2014-01-15 01:03

The following editorial first appeared in the Anchorage Daily News:

In Alaska’s long struggle with alcohol abuse, we’ve learned that we need to confront the problem on multiple fronts — education, treatment and counseling, tough enforcement and effective alternatives to jail time.

For repeat DUI offenders, being married to a 24/7 Breathalyzer covers several of those fronts.

That’s the message in Kyle Hopkins’ Jan. 5 story “Aid to sobriety,” which examines the effectiveness of alcohol testing machines in keeping offenders on the straight and narrow.

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Water Fund may go under without rate hike

Wed, 2014-01-15 01:01

A man watches as heavy equipment works on a water main break in the 700 block of Sawmill Creek Road in October. Repeated repairs like this have “weakened” the city’s Water Fund, according to Finance Director Jay Sweeney. (KCAW photo by Ed Schoenfeld)

Sitkans may be looking at additional increases in water rates in the near future, despite a series of recent hikes to keep the fund afloat.

City finance director Jay Sweeney told the Sitka Assembly in a work session last night that unanticipated expenses had derailed a five-year master plan, and the Water Fund was looking weak.

He also had concerns over the Solid Waste Fund.

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A quarterly financial update is about as mundane as it gets in Sitka’s assembly chambers. But finance director Jay Sweeney was pretty grim talking about the Water Fund. Over the course of the past 17 months, the fund has made a quarter-million dollar stride toward improving its negative balance of working capital — that’s the difference between what needs to be spent on major repairs and improvements and the amount of money on hand. But those repairs just keep on coming.

“We have had several large water main leaks, as the result of aging infrastructure that are not covered by insurance. Especially the one which was near the curve of Sawmill Creek Road, across from Jeff Davis. It was a very expensive leak to fix.”

Sweeney said that one job alone consumed about six month’s worth of the latest rate hike.

And there have been rate hikes, one every year since 2011. This is all according to a Water Fund master plan. But that plan didn’t factor in the installation of an ultra-violet light treatment facility at Blue Lake, which most of the fund’s available cash is designated for.

And the plan didn’t factor in this.

“We now no longer have a viable secondary water source.”

Before the Blue Lake dam was built, Sitka was supplied with water from the Indian River. Although rules regarding surface water have changed, it could still be a fallback — albeit an expensive one.

“Indian River, which was once our secondary water source, requires now some sort of filtration. We know there is a viable alternative in underground water in the Starrigavan Valley, but the challenge is that the water line from the Starrigavan Valley into town, plus the pump stations, are of insufficient size and capability to get that water into town.”

Utility-scale filtration is not cheap. The temporary system Sitka bought to filter Blue Lake water, after the dam is raised and the lake slowly fills up, cost over $3-million.

And Sweeney said that creating a secondary water supply could not be put off indefinitely.

“Somehow we’re going to have to devise a plan because we know — once the hydroelectric facility goes online — within ten years the penstock will need to be shut down yet again for cleaning. That’s our decade-long time to plan and act, and to find an alternative water source, get the funding, and move forward.”

Sweeney said there was a chance the city could “hit a home run” and win grant funding to cover this expense, but he thought it more likely that the assembly would be forced to implement another water rate hike in 2015.

And the bad news didn’t end with the Water Fund. The Solid Waste Fund has typically been in the black, or in the language of high finance…

“In the past, the Solid Waste Fund was always one of our happy funds.”

Sweeney said the fund produced a gross margin, generated cash flow from operations, and increased its working capital. But nine months ago it took a turn for the worse, and has been slipping — by about $19,000 a month.

Sweeney attributed the losses to increases in outside transportation costs, in barging Sitka’s trash to Seattle, and then trucking it to Eastern Washington.

Since these costs are contracted, they can’t really be controlled locally — except for one obvious way.

“If you can reduce your shipping costs. Absolutely, those shipping costs are pound for pound. And big things like food waste and glass would make a huge difference, by increasing that voluntary recycling effort. You’re not going to get any topline revenue from it, but you’re going to help moderate the costs.”

Sweeney said an increase in commodity prices — what Sitka receives for the material it does recycle, like cardboard and plastic — might also help. But he still characterized the recycling program overall as money loser, though not as much of a money loser shipping unsorted garbage.

Without some sort of change, Sweeney anticipated that the assembly would have to consider an increase in the Solid Waste Fund, though not until the next fiscal year.

Happily, Sweeney reported that all other enterprise funds — like Harbors, the Central Garage, and Airport — and the Sitka General Fund, were all healthy.

Sweeney named to new administrative post

Tue, 2014-01-14 22:21

Jay Sweeney (City of Sitka photo)

In other business last night (Tue 1-14-14), finance director Jay Sweeney again took center stage as the assembly considered reclassifying his position.

Municipal administrator Mark Gorman has the authority to reorganize city hall any way he likes, without seeking assembly approval. But he considers Sweeney’s position “critical” and asked for the assembly’s support nonetheless.

Gorman asked the assembly to approve designating Sweeney as the city’s Chief Financial and Administrative Officer, and moving the Finance, Information Services, and Human Resources departments under his supervision.

Gorman said he’s already heard from people who have reservations about the move.

“Why add another layer of bureaucracy in the system? I don’t see it that way. In fact, I see it as creating synergies, where we have an opportunity to reduce some inefficiencies and possibly achieve some economies of scale.”

Gorman stressed that there would still be three separate departments under Sweeney, and that Sweeney’s current deputy finance director, Mike Middleton, would remain in that role, but assume more responsibility.

Assembly members expressed support for the plan. Pete Esquiro wanted to know what would happen if things were left the way they are.

“The downside is that we continue business-as-usual. I think business-as-usual has worked well. The structure’s going to change in the next couple of years, and we’ll organize ourselves in a much more efficient way, and allow for the capacities that we see in staff such as Jay to really contribute in different ways to the strategic initiatives of the City and Borough of Sitka.”

Member Phyllis Hackett wondered if the reorganization would only be effective with Gorman and Sweeney in the roles, but Gorman reassured her that a CFAO was becoming more common among Alaskan municipalities.

Member Aaron Swanson had reservations about increasing Sweeney’s workload, but Sweeney appeared ready for broader duties supporting the administrator.

“I view my role here as helping this gentleman succeed, in whatever way that may be. If this role changes somewhat, and if some of the duties he’s assigned make less sense, and something else makes more sense — then if I can help him in this way so that the overall goals he’s stated, better managing the municipality and achieving some of the initiatives he’s stated — that’s what I envision doing here.”

Sweeney added that he wanted no additional compensation for the new title.

Gorman said he wanted to move slowly, and make the transition over a couple of years. He anticipated that some of the other 14 departments in the city government eventually could be streamlined in the same way.

The assembly voted unanimously to endorse Jay Sweeney’s redesignation as Sitka’s Chief Financial and Administrative Officer.

Rain causes landslide in Sitka

Tue, 2014-01-14 19:20

Brian Bickar and Troy Bayne helped reroute a creek in the Cascade Creek neighborhood to mitigate further damage. (KCAW photo/Emily Forman)

If you’re driving around Sitka today (1-14-14) you might notice that things look a little different. For instance the moose sculpture at Swan Lake is up to its antlers in water. And what was the Indian River trailhead parking lot is now a shallow pond.

Listen to iFriendly audio here.

Joel Curtis, a meteorologist at the national weather service office in Juneau says flooding like this is unusual in Sitka, but the cumulative rainfall is not. According to Curtis, one report measured 7 inches of rain from midnight last night to 10 AM this morning.

Heavy rainfall caused a landslide that moved this Cascade Creek home off its foundation. (KCAW photo/Emily Forman)

Curtis says this is a lot of rain, but not a record amount. ”It’s certainly above normal for this time of year and ordinarily we’re thinking a little snow mixed in or something like that. So this was quite a warm system that came up here. I’d say you just keep putting water on water and snow melting up in the mountains and pretty soon you’ve got some problems going on.”

Like a landslide. Curtis says that this is common when freeze thaws and loosens up rocks, soil, and tree roots. One house in the Cascade Creek neighborhood got the brunt of it.

Bayne: The house has moved. See the edge of it here? The house has moved about 6 inches this way. So that’s pretty much a total lose right there.

Troy Bayne owns an excavation business in Sitka and was able to offer help. Brian Bickar, the property owner’s brother was extremely thankful, saying that Bayne played a vital role in mitigating further damage.

Me: How was he able to intervene?

Bickar: The creek wasn’t under control and it was flooding the street and flooding down into the other property owners’ property. So as soon as he got here, he rerouted the creek and that prevented any damage to people down the street.

Fire Department Chief, Dave Miller was also at the scene.

Miller: I think we started getting calls that there was water problems 6:30 a.m. or 7 a.m., something like that.

Flooding at Swan Lake covers the dock ramp. (KCAW photo/Emily Forman)

Miller spoke with long-time residents who confirmed that this type of flooding is unusual for Sitka.

Miller said, “One of the houses I went to, the lady said this is the highest the creek behind her house has ever been, and she’s been here a long time.”

While we’ll have a bit of a break from heavy precipitation, Curtis say Sitkans should remain cautious. He says the streams are booming right now and there’s still potential for a wash out.

We can also expect more rain midday tomorrow, and another warm weather system Wednesday night into Thursday.

Wild weather = problems for Ketchikan and POW

Tue, 2014-01-14 18:11

This Alaska Department of Public Safety photo shows a slide blocking a road on Prince of Wales Island.

Ketchikan and Prince of Wales Island experienced some wild weather on Tuesday, with heavy rain propelled by strong winds.

In Ketchikan, a landslide sent trees crashing into power lines in the Ward Cove area, triggering a system-wide power outage at around 9:45 a.m. Here’s KPU Electric Division Manager Andy Donato.

“Looks like it took out two of the top lines, which is the Swan-Bailey 115 kv line,” he said. “That in itself would probably be enough to cause the outage that we saw. The entire KPU network went down.”

KPU isolated sections of the grid and soon restored power to customers south of the Bailey Power Plant, but those north of that facility remained without power until late afternoon.

Donato says it’s challenging for line crews to work in this kind of weather.

“If you’ve seen these bucket trucks at the top of these poles, waving in the wind, and the wind is strong. It’s nasty conditions,” he said. “There’s no doubt these linemen are earning their pay today.”

No flooding problems were reported in city limits, but crews were keeping an eye on drains, according to the city Public Works Department.

On POW, though, there was flooding that led to landslides and blocked roads.

One of those slides blocked all traffic on the Klawock-Hollis Highway, and another cut off the community of Coffman Cove. State Troopers reported that a portion of Whale Pass Road also was washed out.

Because of the Klawock-Hollis Highway slide, the Inter-Island Ferry Authority had to hold Tuesday’s ferry run from Ketchikan to Prince of Wales Island.

IFA General Manager Dennis Watson says it was unclear how bad the slide was, or whether the road was damaged or just covered with mud and debris.

“Our terminal agent in Hollis drove out on site and called me and she said it’s really bad,” he said. “I don’t know if she could even tell if the road was washed out. She just said there was a tremendous amount of mud across it. And apparently one house below that was severely damaged, from what I understand.”

Watson says the wind was blowing a steady 35 to 40 earlier Tuesday morning on POW, and things picked up even more.

“And then around 11 it just really cranked up,” he said. “It had to have been blowing a steady 50 at least, gusting way higher. It was really bad.”

Watson says power to Hollis also was cut off, and Craig was without electricity for about 45 minutes. A phone call seeking information from Alaska Power and Telephone, the power provider on POW, was not returned by deadline.

The wind started dying down Tuesday afternoon, but flood warnings from the National Weather Service remained in effect until 6 p.m. Tuesday for Ketchikan and Prince of Wales.

Trail makeover

Tue, 2014-01-14 17:31

The lower falls at the Herring Cove trailhead. Upstream, several sections of the trail are under fast-flowing water. (Bill Foster photo)

Three days of heavy rainfall has generated serious runoff problems, even in areas outside of Sitka. The Herring Cove Trail was first damaged by runoff during an unusual rain/snowmelt situation about five weeks ago, when water carved a new channel in the trail just below the log bridge at the upper falls. Now, water has filled that channel again, as local naturalist Bill Foster discovered this morning (Tue 1-14-14, see photo below).

This picturesque waterfall is actually the trail. Note the stepping stones at right. (Bill Foster photo)

Additionally, the falls midway up the trail have been diverted by a large log, and that section of the trail is in the process of being washed out. Forest Service landscape architect and trail designer Barth Hamberg says extensive maintenance will be needed to return the trail to its former condition. Investment in mitigating nature, however, is a calculation: “You can overbuild,” Hamberg says, “for things that may or may not happen.”

At Beaver Lake, the site of a major landslide two years ago, the trail is weathering the storm quite well. But Bill Foster reports 72 of the stepping stones on the north side of the lake are under water — some up to the top of his XTRATUFF boots!

This section of the trail, just below the upper bridge, washed out five weeks ago, during a snowmelt event. Today, it’s whitewater. (Bill Foster photo)

Petersburg elementary school to get major overhaul

Tue, 2014-01-14 14:33

Rae C. Stedman Elementary school in Petersburg is getting a major overhaul this year and it looks like the work will be starting before the end of the school year. The wall, window and insulation project is expected to cut down on heating bills for the four-decade-old building.

Petersburg’s school board this month voted to award the contract to the Alaska Commercial Contractors for $2.3 million. Alaska Commercial has an office in Juneau and employs some Petersburg residents. It was one of six companies bidding on the work.

Superintendent Rob Thomason summed up the input from the district’s architectural firm. “They were pleased with all the bidders. They were extremely pleased with the winning bidder. They’ve worked with them before. They are in some ways Petersburg based. The numbers were what they call a tight grouping in terms of they were all within a few hundred thousand dollars as opposed to millions of dollars of difference. And so they’re very comfortable that every company was looking at the same thing so they understand what they are getting into. We’re thrilled with the contractor. We’re excited about the project and it’s right on budget for what we had anticipated and set aside out of the timber receipt for our 30 percent at the borough level.”

70 percent of the project cost will come from the state while local 30 percent match will be covered by federal dollars the borough has saved. That money is from the Secure Rural Schools payments, formerly called timber receipts, given to communities near national forest land.

The project will mean new walls and windows for Stedman elementary, built in 1969. Maintenance director Dan Tate described the work. “Well it’s gonna be quite a site to see come the summer. You gonna see large sections of the school with the walls completely down. We’re getting two by six wall construction which is an industry standard. Right now our walls are unbelievably thin and it’s gonna be quite a change. When the final siding goes up and the windows are in place you’re gonna see a different window configuration than you’ve seen in the past. It’ll be a little more aesthetically pleasing probably. Biggest thing I think you’ll notice is our siding that’s on there right now is a little more of a vertical nature to it and we’re gonna go with what looks like from the drawings a two-tone horizontal look to it. And like I said different window arrangement, like I said I think it should be very pleasing for everyone to see.”

Tate said the bids came in low enough to pay for other work at the school. That will include replacing old carpeting, removing asbestos pipe fittings under the building and new digital controls for the heating system.

“In 2005 the mechanical systems of the school were brought up into this century shall we say and now with these improvements plus, the name of the project actually goes a little bit greater,” Tate said. “We’re also getting new radiator and fin tubes, new insulation underneath the school, the envelop’s going to be increased all the way across the board. With the digital controls like I said we’re coming into the 21 century with that building.”

The district was hoping to do the work entirely during the summer, when kids are not in class. However, it looks like the renovations will take longer than the three month summer break. Principal Erica Kludt-Painter saidconstruction will be starting while kids are still in school this year. “Which poses some challenges that we’re working through actually right now and hoping to work directly with the contractors as well as far as what that might look like and how that will impact students and how we can make it the least impact educationally, with the hope that everything will be up and running and ready to go by the beginning of the school year that’s the real goal.”

Kludt-Painter said the start of work could be April or sooner and it may mean closing some parts of the school and juggling classroom space. “Potentially yes. And talking about things like looking at the library, obviously you don’t really wanna close the library during school year but at the same time that’s not a classroom. Everything’s being looked at but we really want it to be the least impact on the kids.”

Superintendent Thomason thinks the disruption from construction will be worth a warmer school building that will be more cost-effective to heat in the long run.

Sitka’s first iconography workshop: windows into heaven

Tue, 2014-01-14 12:07

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Jeff Budd and Dr. Ana Dittmar discuss an upcoming iconography workshop sponsored by St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Greater Sitka Arts Council.

Hardin to resign from Ketchikan School District

Tue, 2014-01-14 11:59

After 17 years at the Ketchikan Gateway Borough School District, Curriculum Director Linda Hardin has announced her resignation, effective June 30.

The School Board will vote Wednesday on a motion to accept Hardin’s resignation. In her letter, Hardin writes that her time in Ketchikan has been “my pleasure to work with so many talented and dedicated school personnel and community members.”

Hardin was traveling and not available for comment by deadline for this report.

Also Wednesday, the School Board will discuss the process for appointing members to vacant seats on the board, and consider a contract with Sarah Devore to teach at Tongass School of Arts and Sciences for the rest of this school year.

The School Board meeting starts at 6 p.m. in Borough Assembly chambers at the White Cliff building. Public comment will be heard at the start and end of the meeting.

Tues Jan 14, 2014

Tue, 2014-01-14 11:53

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Ketchikan’s borough mayor delivered a State of the Borough Address. Organizers of a downtown revitalization effort in Sitka are taking a look at an unconventional approach to bringing new energy to the community: by keeping it the same. The Sitka assembly will hear a request from municipal administrator Mark Gorman to restructure city hall.

Autism conference comes to Craig

Tue, 2014-01-14 10:28

The Autism in Alaska Conference will hold workshops at Craig Elementary School on January 17 and 18 from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. The Conference will explore a range of topics for caregivers, teachers, and anyone interested in learning more about Autism. Program coordinator Krista James tells KRBD about the upcoming conference.


Hearings not required on oil tax referendum

Tue, 2014-01-14 01:05

JUNEAU — The lieutenant governor’s office is not planning public hearings on a referendum to repeal Alaska’s new oil tax because such measures do not fall under a law requiring hearings for ballot initiatives, his spokeswoman said.

Some lawmakers have talked about possible legislation to include referenda under the law involving initiatives, but “at this point, that is not part of our obligation,” Michelle Toohey, a spokeswoman for Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, said in an interview last week.

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More than 3,300 Alaskans sign up for insurance

Tue, 2014-01-14 01:05

JUNEAU — More than 3,300 Alaskans signed up for private health insurance during the first three months of the online marketplace, with the vast majority — 83 percent — receiving federal help in paying their premiums, government figures released Monday show.

The number of sign-ups as of Dec. 28 is up sharply from the end of November, when fewer than 400 Alaskans had selected plans. Nationwide, enrollment through Dec. 28 was nearly 2.2 million. That figure includes enrollment through state-run insurance exchanges.

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Gas station shut after explosion reopens

Tue, 2014-01-14 01:04

FAIRBANKS — A gasoline station near Alaska’s Denali National Park has reopened less than two years after it was shut down following a fire and explosion, with full renovation expected by summer.

The gas station in Cantwell has mostly been restored, but there is still cosmetic work to do, the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reported.

The Chevron station burned on Dec. 4, 2011, after an explosion ignited two heating fuel containers near the main building. The fire burned all night and was extinguished the following morning.

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Seminar teaches women to fight

Tue, 2014-01-14 01:04

FAIRBANKS — In front of a room of eagerly watching eyes, instructor Jeannette Scott flipped her mock assailant off her with a shove of her hips.

“The trick is to tuck your feet in as close to your rear-end as possible and push with your hips,” she said, half the room’s width separating her from the assailant who had been pinning her a moment before.

Moments later, the dozen women attending the first Women’s Safety Symposium also were bucking off would-be attackers and exclaiming about how surprisingly easy it was.

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