Residents take advantage of free internet service at the Haines Public Library. (Photo provided)

Residents take advantage of free internet service at the Haines Public Library. (Photo provided)

The Legislature agreed on the FY17 state budget on Tuesday with some key funding restored, including 100 percent of the Online With Libraries program.

The nearly $762,000 in funding for OWL was axed completely at earlier budget committee sessions, but this week, the Legislature passed a plan that restores all of the library money. The program keeps rural libraries and residents connected to the rest of the world.

Debbie Gravel is a library assistant in Haines. She’s says the news came as a huge relief.

“It will make a huge different and it will help immensely,” she says. “OWL has been a wonderful program and it has been great for rural libraries. There are certain libraries up in the Bush, not necessarily us, who were going to have to close down. It’s so important to their function and to their population.”

The state program covers about 20 percent of the internet costs for small libraries in Alaska, with the federal government picking up almost all the rest through its E-Rate program. The federal money, which adds up to more than $3 million, hinges on state support. According to the state, libraries pay about 2 percent of the broadband costs.
Currently, 40 communities rely on that state and federal funding for their internet service. Even more towns, including Skagway, use OWL for videoconferencing to access classes and online training.

“For use to be able to provide free wifi, to be able to afford in our budget our public access computer – we have seven for patrons and guests to get online – yeah, this has made it affordable for us.”

Gravel says the service provides a comfortable, affordable spot for locals to do everything from banking to shopping. And it allows visitors to check in with family and friends back home.

“As we all know when we’re traveling, there always something that comes up that we need to do or need change,” says Gravel. “Being able to get online is very important. Even if they have devices and willing to pay, they’re not really sure where to go. The library is very visible and almost everyone knows – it’s the first place I go when I’m traveling. I think it’s become an expectation.”

Kim Baxter is the librarian at the Craig Public Library. She says she was thrilled when she heard the news. Since the library is the only place for free internet access in Craig, a lot of people in town use it for job searches, recertification and online training.

“And you don’t have buy a six-dollar orange juice to use it,” Baxter laughs.

 Last month, an online petition to restore funding garnered 1,200 signatures from across the state. Baxter says they were coming up with a contingency plan just in case the program was cut.

“We would have gone back to, not dial-up because that’s not an option, but pretty restricted service,” she says. “No classes, and no heavy downloads so it would have been just checking email and then whenever our limit was up, we were just going to shut it off until the next month.”

Another contentious cut that is safe for now, is money for the senior benefits program. The recent budget agreement restores $5.14 million. Almost 12,000 Alaskans aged 65 or older receive state money through the Senior Benefits Program. There are three tiers of senior benefits. Those eligible, who fall in the highest income bracket, used to receive $125 monthly. That’s the portion that, as of March 1, got cut to $47. The income limits for each payment level are dependent on the Alaska Federal Poverty Guidelines and change each year as that level changes.

According to the Division of Public Assistance, 49 Haines seniors and one in Skagway utilize the program.

Sierra Jimenez is the development director at Southeast Alaska Independent Living in Haines. She says the restoration of funds to these social service programs is good news. But, it’s still unclear how the $5.1 million will get distributed within the senior benefits program.

“What I was hearing from people is that they depend on that money to pay their bills, to live, to stay warm, and so it’s huge,” she says. “This, potentially, is great news, and hopefully all the levels will be restored to what they once were, but nobody knows for sure.”

Jimenez says other money that directly affects SAIL like the senior community-based grants and senior disability services also got restored.

“There are some other really amazing things that happened. Personal care assistance for people who need personal care living at home, that was restored; Alaska Heating Assistance Program, they had $9.2 million restored. There was a lot for people.”

Gov. Bill Walker has a couple weeks to sign off on the FY17 budget, with the option to veto portions of it.

Multiple calls to the Division of Public Assistance and Southeast Senior Services were not returned by press time.