Youth Fishing Day will be Saturday April 26 at the 21 Mile pull-out on Haines Highway. There...
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Alaska and Yukon Headlines
The Borough administration’s various departments made their budget presentations to the Matanuska Susitna Borough Assembly on Tuesday. April 15.
Borough manger John Moosey told the panel that the upcoming fiscal year’s Borough overall income would take a hit from a 20 percent reduction in state revenue sharing
“Revenue sharing is about a one million dollar hit. So it’d be a million dollars this year. That million dollar decrease is planned for in this budget.”
Moosey said that increased up-front costs associated with the state’s PERS retirement plan and changes in how the state reimburses PERS contributions will impact Boro spending accounts. He said plans are to eliminate one administrative position next fiscal year.
However, Moosey told the body, ‘..we have a lot for other people to be jealous of.’ He outlined Borough FY 14 successes in projects involving schools, roads, fisheries, recreation and the Port MacKenzie rail spur.
Among the Borough’s fiscal challenges, expenses for the upkeep of Port MacKenzie loom large. Moosey defends port development, especially in light of recent state legislative and budget developments regarding the Knik Arm Crossing. “We have to pay attention to port development”, he said.
According to Port Mackenzie director Marc Van Dongen, the proposed FY 15 port budget is less than the current fiscal year’s port budget. The total port budget of 915,708 dollars includes 135 thousand dollars in power bills anticipated this year, due to new electrical systems scheduled to be constructed at the port this year. The work itself is being paid for by a state grant.
Van Dongen told the panel that projected revenues from port usage have not materialized, due to delays in the coal production that initially were expected to keep the port in business. He said that the Port had not paid for its keep since 2008, when a gravel shipping project brought in more in than 800 thousand dollars into Borough accounts through royalites and wharfage and docking fees.
According to Van Dongen, the Port cannot generate enough revenue to meet expenses until the Port MacKenzie rail spur is up and running
“When that rail line is completed and we are shipping three million tons or more of commodities or combination of commodities, that will generate gross revenue of about five million dollars a year and net revenues of over four million dollars a year. That’s what we have been working toward for fourteen years, is to get to the point where we get the rail line completed and can officially import to the port large volumes of commodities via rail.”
He told the panel that Port MacKenzie has been successful in securing a three month project for the port this summer to receive and load 14 miles of concrete covered pipe for shipment to Nikiski. But he said the Port needs another three million dollars from the state legislature to pay for needed cathodic protection work on it’s pilings. And the last two miles of gravel road leading to the port still have to be paved. Van Dongen said there was a little over 900 thousand dollars left over from a state grant to pave the port road, but that would be barely adequate to complete the project. One Assembly member asked what would happen if the state took that 900 thousand back. Van Dongen said then the Borough could not finish the road paving.
Other setbacks include a US Army Corps of Engineers halt on wetlands permits the port requires to complete piling and electric work. Van Dongen said it’s important to keep that 900 thousand in the Borough.
“It’s important that we retain those funds. We need a half a million to pave that last half mile, and we need 283 thousand to pay for the mitigation. That would come out of that 907 thousand . There’s a freeze on our permits. The Corps is not letting us process any permits, and there’s three permits I need to be processing now, that are on hold until we satisfy that mitigation.”
The mitigation Van Dongen refers to is an agreement the Borough makes with the Corps to pay for wetlands purchases to compensate for wetlands impacted by the rail spur project.
Van Dongen said that four segments of the rail spur construction are underway, but two segments remain. He said 171 million dollars has been spent on spur construction so far, but another 101 million dollars is needed to complete the final two segments. The plan is to ask the state legislature for that money over three years. Van Dongen said Borough fiscal officials estimate the Port loses 400 thousand dollars a year, but that will be paid back to the Borough general fund when the rail spur is completed.
Four people were arraigned in court Wednesday morning for allegedly selling marijuana. The cases are the result of an investigation into drug possession that started at the local high school.
Two of the defendants are students there — something that deputy police chief Mike Holman says is extremely rare in Unalaska. Holman says officers started looking into the case on Monday.
“We got some information from the school that one of the students — a 14-year-old girl — was found to have some marijuana in her possession,” Holman says. “We went down and spoke with her, spoke with her parents, spoke with another 15-year-old girl.”
The students alleged that they’d obtained marijuana from Soo Enele, a 22-year-old Unalaska resident. Police questioned Enele and took him into custody on Tuesday. He was charged with a felony for allegedly selling marijuana to a minor.
Following up on a tip from Enele, police spoke with a person on Tuesday who said they knew of other drug activity in the community, and agreed to act as a confidential informant.
“The individual who helped us out was able to identify another high schooler — his name is Shadrack Baird — who was selling marijuana,” Holman says. “He made an undercover purchase from Shadrack, who is 18.”
Baird was arrested Tuesday night, along with two people who drove with him to meet the informant — his classmate, 18-year-old Johanna Pham, and 30-year-old Jason Tungul.
They were all charged with misdemeanors related to the sale and possession of marijuana. Pham and Tungul were also charged with a felony for allegedly trying to get rid of drugs and paraphernalia before officers caught up with them.
It’s not common for police to pursue drug cases against high school students in Unalaska, Holman says. The district attorney’s office helped them weigh that against other facts of the case before pressing ahead.
“The age of the young girls at the school that were originally found in possession of the marijuana is one of the large factors in this,” Holman says, “Fourteen- or 15-year-old girls that are receiving or buying marijuana through the adults.”
Magistrate Judge Jane Pearson reviewed all four cases during a court hearing Wednesday morning. Pearson noted that Tungul is the only defendant with prior convictions. He recently served a felony sentence and is still on parole.
Pearson approved conditions of release for each defendant, which include contact restrictions and third-party custodians. But the magistrate made an exception for Baird. He told the court his family moved out of state a few months ago. He stayed behind in Unalaska to finish his last year of high school.
The magistrate waived Baird’s custodian requirement and set bail at a $500 unsecured appearance bond. She reviewed the state’s bail suggestions for the other three defendants but did not set bond amounts. They will stay in jail until the court screens and approves third-party custodians.
Ethan Petticrew teaches Raven how to say, Yes in the Alaska Native language Unangax.
Gov. Sean Parnell’s $150 million-dollar bill to subsidize Alaska’s oil refineries grew to $200 million today, when House Speaker Mike Chenault expanded it to include the Agrium fertilizer plant in Nikiski.
The plant has been closed for years, but Agrium said last year it’s considering reopening it.
Chenault, a Nikiski Republican, says he’s been talking to the company for a while about some kind of state incentive to reopen the plant, which has been closed since 2008. Then, a few days ago, the governor proposed a bill to help refineries. Chenault says Agrium recognized the possibility.
“Well, we’ve been looking, and this happens to be a vehicle,” Chenault explained, “and they did bring it up and said ‘Hey, could we qualify for this?’ So we investigated it and drafted up the amendment.”
Chenault says bringing the plant online could create 450 jobs in his district, plus cheap fertilizer for Mat-Su farmers. House Bill 287 would provide a refinery up to $10 million a year, in tax credits or cash, for five years. To qualify, a company would have to spend $25 million on its infrastructure. The Parnell Administration proposed it to help Petro Star cope with the high price of North Slope crude. Petro Star has two refineries, so it could get up to $100 million over five years. Tesoro and Agrium would qualify for $50 million each. If a company buys the Flint Hills refinery in North Pole, it would also qualify for $50 million.
Democrats who opposed the bill before said the addition of Agrium makes it worse. Sen. Berta Gardner, an Anchorage Democrat, says she’s angry this bill is moving while funding for education remains uncertain.
“It galls me. It seems like the Legislature hasn’t met a tax incentive or tax credit we didn’t endorse, if it’s for the oil industry.”
It’s as if, she says, industry gets what it wants and kids get the crumbs. Chenault dismissed such comparisons, saying that’s just the Democratic mantra.
The bill cleared the House Rules Committee in about six minutes this morning and heads next to the House floor.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has accused the University of Alaska Fairbanks of possible Animal Welfare Act violations in the starvation deaths of 12 musk oxen at its large-animal research station.
USDA spokeswoman Tanya Espinosa said today an administrative judge will decide whether the university will face fines an animal rights group hopes total $10,000 for each animal.
University spokeswoman Marmian Grimes says the school is working on a response to the complaint.
The USDA says the university failed to provide adequate veterinary care, identify that the musk oxen were losing weight or enlist veterinary treatment. The animals died or were euthanized in 2010 and 2011.
The complaint filed in late March follows a request by the group Stop Animal Exploitation Now to investigate the school.
At $245 million, the biggest item in the capital budget before the Legislature is a power plant for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. The plant is needed to replace an old one that’s at risk of breaking down. The project is now before the House Finance Committee for review, and lawmakers are less surprised by the price tag than by how the funding package works in the first place.
Because Alaska is in deficit spending mode, the Legislature is less inclined to sign massive checks outright. So, if you want a megaproject funded, you can ask for a trickle of grants spread out over a few years. Or, you can fund it creatively.
The second approach is being taken with the University of Alaska Fairbanks power plant. And lawmakers like Rep. Lindsey Holmes wrestled with the concept on Tuesday night.
“I’m just trying to get a handle on who’s paying where, and to what extent the moral obligation or actual obligation of the state is involved, and ‘Who’s on first?’” said Holmes. “Since we’ve got for different funding sources kind of all weaving together.”
There’s good reason for being lost.
The first chunk of money is $37.5 million in straight cash, which some senators had originally wanted to use to finish UAF’s engineer building. Then comes a $50 million reappropriation, with the Legislature draining an energy loan program to help pay for the plant. The third pot of money is made of $70 million in revenue bonds, with the University of Alaska slated to pay that back through energy savings and by potentially passing the cost onto students.
Last but not least is the biggest source of money: $87.5 million from the Municipal Bond Bank Authority, which has in the past only sold bonds for Alaska’s cities. That’s probably the most complicated part of the arrangement, because even though the bonds are for the University system, the state will be paying off that debt on their behalf, to the tune of up to $7 million a year.
Even Deven Mitchell, who directs the bond bank, struggled to explain who will actually be responsible for paying that off.
“The state is going to [pay] — maybe, yeah, through the back door — but not from our perspective,” said Mitchell “The commitments that we’re going to get is from the university.”
The patchwork nature of the deal left members of the House Finance Committee with plenty of questions, like: Why wasn’t the state just paying for this upfront, instead of increasing the cost of the project by basically taking on debt?
Rep. Tammie Wilson, a North Pole Republican, wanted to know if UAF students were at risk of shouldering the burden, through either increased tuition or fuel surcharges.
“I guess that’s what I don’t understand,” said Wilson. “To me, maintenance it shouldn’t matter if it’s on UAA, UAF, or UAS, or even one of your smaller campuses. And I don’t know how your books work, so if I understand you correctly, though, University of Alaska Fairbanks would be keeping their own books, UAA would have their own accounting books, and each smaller one. And that’s how everything gets funded instead of your one system that takes care of it as a system.”
UAF Chancellor Brian Rogers responded that deciding whether the whole system or just the Fairbanks campus would cover the costs would be left to the Board of Regents.
Committee members also wanted answers on why the project was so urgent. Rogers explained that unless the University upgrades their coal-powered plant, the campus was at risk of a major failure that would leave all of its buildings without power or heat. It’s their top priority, and Fairbanks Republican Pete Kelly fought hard for the package in the Senate, winning out over the reservations of some of his colleagues.
With all the confusion surrounding the project, Finance Co-Chair Bill Stoltze decided not to advance the package straight away and instead let members – including himself – digest it.
“I’m trying to come up with, really an understanding, because, this is, usually when there’s … Usually folks aren’t speechless,” said Stoltze.
The committee is expected to amend the deal to lower the state’s annual payment in coming days.
Village Public Safety Officers will soon be able to carry fire arms if Governor Sean Parnell signs a measure approved this morning in the Senate.
Senator Donny Olson spoke the bill’s behalf.
“House Bill 199 clearly establishes the legislators intent to go ahead and allow those VPSOs in various villages to carry firearms,” Olson said. “This does not mandate that they have to but it does allow them to go ahead and lift that restriction that has been there by the Department of Public Safety from the past.”
Under HB 199 regional non-profits have the final say in whether or not they want VPSOs to carry weapons. Some non-profits, like the Tanana Chiefs Conference, sent letters urging legislators to support the measure. And none of them came out against it.
The bill allows up to 20 qualified VPSOs a year to travel to the police academy in Sitka for comprehensive firearms training, as well as use of deadly force instruction. The Department of Public Safety will absorb the $62,000 a year in costs.
The measure comes in the context of rising rates of rural violence, and debates throughout the state on how to improve public safety in communities off the road system. Violence that claimed the life of a Village Public Safety Officer last year.
“We all remember that sad day on March 19th, 2013 when the unarmed VPSO Thomas Madole in Manakotake got into the line of fire,” Olson said. “This is a response to that so that with proper training they’ll be allowed to go ahead and be armed.”
HB 199 was approved on the Senate floor unanimously. It now heads to the governor’s desk for final approval.
The Alaska House of Representatives approved a bill on Wednesday that would symbolically recognize 20 Alaska Native languages as official state languages. House Bill 216 passed on a 38-0 vote.
With less than a week to go in this year’s legislative session, the Senate State Affairs Committee will hear the bill tomorrow.
Bethel resident Megan Leary is heading to Albuquerque, New Mexico later this month to vie for the title of Miss Indian World. The former Miss Cama-I is preparing and raising money for her trip.
Each contestant competes five areas: public speaking, personal interview, traditional presentation, dance and essay. Leary says she’s exited to represent Alaska.
“There will be girls from all across the nation and Canada and Mexico – different indigenous girls, young ladies my age that will be going and competing. They’ll be going and competing and showcasing their culture, their traditions and their background, where they’re from and their talent and just their knowledge of who we are as indigenous people.”
Leary grew up in Kalskag and Napaimute, and graduated from Bethel Regional High School. She was Miss Cama-i 2013 and went on to become Miss World Eskimo Indian Olympics, or Miss Weio. She says she’s putting the finishing touches on her regalia.
“I’m still beading and sewing some of the last of my regalia. You know I made myself an Athabascan dress. I beaded for that. I’m making a pair of Athabascan style mukluks, cause I’m Yup’ik and Athabascan and I have a lot of the Yup’ik regalia already cause growing up here on the Kuskowkwim and so there was a lot of the Athabaskan stuff that I had to make. So there’s a lot of that that I’m still doing and I’m polishing my talent.”
Leary’s talent is skin sewing. She’ll have three minutes to present it to judges.
“I’ll talk about he importance of it culturally, and why we do it and what it means, like your stiches. And the types of materials that you use and what it means to me to be passing this skill on and teaching other people to do it cause it’s something that’s dying out off now that we can just go to the store and buy snow pants or a warm jacket.”
Leary says she is raising money to fund her trip.
“You can go to go fund me dot com and type in my name, Megan Leary, in the search bar and it will pull up my little account and you can just click in there and donate money right there directly through your debit card or bank account.”
Leary will compete in the Miss Indian World Cultural Pageant April 22ndthrough the 26th at the annual Gathering of Nations Powwow in Albuquerque. She’s raising $3-thousand dollars to cover, airfare, lodging , transportation and other pageant expenses. She’s raised over 1-thousand dollars as of Monday April 14th.
Like many hospitals in Southeast Alaska, Wrangell Medical Center is starting to look its age. A brand new hospital is still the long-term plan, but for now, the building is getting a much-needed makeover.
Institutional. That’s the word that best describes the old look of Wrangell Medical Center.
The walls are a generically dreary tan. The banisters are scratched. The floors show the wear and tear of a thousand muddy shoes scuffing up the walkway.
It looks…like a hospital.
“It’s utilitarian,” says hospital CEO Marla Sanger.
We’re in the basement of the medical center, walking down a hallway to a positively tiny room. It’s barely big enough to squeeze in some chairs and a desk and maybe a yoga mat.
“But this area in here was the space where most of the physical therapy activity occurred. It has one window that looks out at a wall where a little bit of indirect light gets in. But other than that it’s very much just the harsh lighting, it’s got a grey carpet. There still was very excellent care provided here but it is not an atmosphere that says welcome, come in, you’ve come to the right place,” says Sanger.
The hospital has struggled with its public image for the past couple of years. But it’s making some major changes in how it relates to its patients and the community.
That’s why Sanger says the time was right to freshen up the facility, too.
“It’s very treatment-like. I mean it feels, like you say, you feel like you’ve come here to have a treatment performed. Where, in the new physical therapy gym space, it feels to me much more like a health and wellness place- where people are coming in to achieve their optimal mobility and wellness,” says Sanger.
The new physical therapy space is upstairs. It’s a large room lined with mirrors. It’s filled with brightly colored therapy balls and lots of equipment and exercise machines.
The two rooms are like night and day.
And this change happened in less than a month. Earlier this year, the entire physical therapy program was overhauled. The department was given three weeks to strip it down to the basics, re-evaluate, and modernize.
“And their task was to redesign this space, to design new processes for physical therapy, design all their documentation tools, design the way patients would get registered, the scheduling, everything. They identified pieces of equipment that we didn’t have that they ordered and then, from the time that they arrived to three weeks later, we went from what you saw downstairs to this new space,” says Sanger.
The problem with re-doing one part of the hospital is that it underscores just how much the rest of the building needs a makeover too.
“And I would kind of liken it to when you fix up a room of your house and then the rest of your house suddenly doesn’t look so good. That feels kind of like what happened when we improved the physical therapy space and built the beautiful new gym. And then all of a sudden, we’re looking at everything a bit askance. And that’s why we’re doing this. It just needs to look better,” says Sanger.
Sanger says she was strict with budgeting the renovations and shopped around carefully to get the most bang for the hospital’s bucks.
The walls are getting a fresh coat of paint. Instead of the old peachy tan, they’re sunny yellow on top with rich green on the bottom. The old, worn banisters are getting re-finished. And new carpets line the hallways.
And, to further break from the old institutional feel, she involved hospital staff in parts of the decision-making process.
Kris Reed is a development assistant for the hospital. She’s also an artist with a flair for color. So, she helped choose the paint.
“I did a little bit of research online and found that greens and blues were colors that were recommended for places where people were being treated for a variety of different things. Just in looking at the colors available to us, it seemed like a good decision,” says Reed.
She chose some color options and posted samples around the building for staff to vote on. Once the feedback was in, the colors went up.
“Oh it makes a huge difference in how people feel in the space and to some degree, depending on the space, how productive you can be,” says Reed.
Reed says it makes it a more pleasant place for both patients and staff. It’s inviting. But that doesn’t mean the hospital stops here.
CEO Marla Sanger says that these renovations don’t replace plans for a brand new facility.
“Just because we’re doing these improvements right now doesn’t mean in any way that we’re not still very interested and very much wanting a new hospital. And we are going to be continuing to try for that. It might be a bit difficult but we are going to just try one step at a time to get back on track, get it going again,” says Sanger.
But in the meantime she says, the hospital can continue to care for the community in a freshened up space with a brand new outlook.
Middle East exchange student Haytham Mohanna and the Thunder Mountain High School Art Club presented an origami peacock of peace to the Alaska State Legislature on Monday. The peacock is made of more than 2,000 pieces of folded paper.
Mohanna says the peacock represents the dreams of the people of Gaza, his home country.
“I hope this peacock, which symbolizes the peace, go in each mind and each heart, and really rise our mind about the wars and conflicts,” Mohanna says.
Mohanna is studying at Haines High School through an exchange program funded by the U.S. State Department.
He learned how to make an origami peacock from a teacher in Gaza and taught the process to Thunder Mountain art club students while he was visiting Juneau. It took the club three months to fold more than 2,000 pieces of paper. The peacock is about three feet wide and two feet tall.
Art club coordinator Heather Ridgway says she didn’t immediately know where the peacock should be displayed. She wanted it to be in a place where it could inspire people.
“It was like, ‘Oh, of course, we’ll take it to the capitol. They are working on major issues that require everyone to commit time and attention and do a careful job and work together and be patient, just like making this peacock. Let’s give it to the legislature,’” Ridgway says.
Juneau Sen. Dennis Egan calls Mohanna an artist and says the peacock will definitely inspire visitors to the capitol and lawmakers.
“I can guarantee you that people will reflect on it and hopefully bring good things and remember that, you know, we’re all trying to come in peace,” Egan says.
Until a permanent place can be found for the origami peacock, it’s temporarily displayed in the House Speaker’s Chambers.