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Southeast Alaska News

Senate passes new approach to pension obligation

7 hours 42 min ago

JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate unanimously passed legislation setting out a new approach for addressing the state’s pension obligation Saturday, less than three hours after the plan emerged from the Senate Finance Committee.

It will be up to the House to decide whether to accept the Senate plan, which advanced on the 89th day of the scheduled 90-day session. If the House doesn’t, the bill could go to a conference committee.

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Analysis: In final day, major issues still unresolved

7 hours 43 min ago

Legislators spent much of Friday and Saturday working to secure votes for various bills while tying up loose ends on others. With a midnight deadline looming to finish the state’s business, there’s much for lawmakers to accomplish concerning several pieces of key legislation.

The debate on two of the session’s biggest issues has been pushed to today. Those issues are education reform and funding and the capital budget.

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Education funding picture still murky

7 hours 43 min ago

Democrats, teachers, parents and school officials aren’t happy with what appears to be the future of education funding in Alaska.

Their unhappiness comes as members of the powerful Senate Finance Committee recommended funneling $124.3 million toward education this year — that’s $24.3 million more than was proposed Friday.

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House Finance advances gas line bill

7 hours 43 min ago

JUNEAU — The House Finance Committee on Friday advanced a bill setting the state’s participation in a major liquefied natural gas project, with members expressing a mix of both optimism and skepticism about whether the process would yield a long hoped-for gas line.

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Feds release initial report on crash near Bethel

7 hours 44 min ago

ANCHORAGE — A small commercial plane was flying at about 3,400 feet when it crashed near Bethel, killing the two pilots on board, according to a preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board.

Investigators still don’t know what caused the Cessna 208 operated by Hageland Aviation to go down on April 8 during a training flight, KYUK reported Thursday.

Investigators were digging through data sent from the plane that crashed in clear, calm weather.

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Settlement will allow land sale for Anchorage park

7 hours 44 min ago

ANCHORAGE — The settlement of a claim on property owned by the Boys and Girls Clubs of Alaska will allow the land to be sold to the city of Anchorage for a park.

The dispute over 17 acres on Waldron Lake was addressed in an out-of-court settlement this month, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

Marcy Trent obtained the land as part of a 160-acre homestead she worked with her first husband, Roger Waldron, who died in a plane crash in 1962.

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High court: State has duty to protect inmates

7 hours 44 min ago

ANCHORAGE — A former prison inmate in Alaska can move forward with his lawsuit claiming the state Department of Corrections failed to protect him from another inmate, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled Friday.

The state’s prison system has a duty to protect the lives and health of inmates in its custody, according to the opinion written by Chief Justice Dana Fabe.

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Denali road open to Mile 30

7 hours 45 min ago

FAIRBANKS — In a sure sign of spring, and a perk to those living in Alaska, the only road into Denali National Park and Preserve was opened Friday to Mile 30.

Officials say weather permitting, the road will remain open to that mile marker until May 20, when tour buses begin running for the summer. After that date, normal rules will apply, meaning the road will be closed to private vehicular traffic at Mile 15.

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Carnival cancels 15 port calls in Ketchikan

7 hours 45 min ago

KETCHIKAN — Ketchikan will have about 30,000 fewer cruise ship passengers this summer after technical issues will prompt one line to cancel 15 port calls.

The Carnival Cruise Lines ship Miracle had 20 port calls scheduled this summer, the Ketchikan Daily News reported. But the ship has a technical issue that will lower its top speed from 21 knots to anywhere between 18 to 20 knots.

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Judge rejects witness in Kodiak Coast Guard trial

7 hours 45 min ago

ANCHORAGE — An inmate known as “Eyeball” will not be taking the stand for the defense in a Kodiak Coast Guard double homicide case — at least for now — after a judge ruled Friday there’s no proven connection between him and the case.

Jason Barnum, 38, got his nickname from a tattoo that darkened the white of his right eye. His face is also heavily tattooed, including one that traces some of the outlines of his skull.

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Bill designates house for Lt. Gov.

7 hours 45 min ago

JUNEAU — The Alaska Senate passed a bill Friday that would designate a historic house in downtown Juneau as the official residence of the state’s lieutenant governor.

The amendment, from Sen. Dennis Egan, D-Juneau, was accepted during debate on HB246, a bill that would add land to Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge in Fairbanks.

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Check your mailbox!

Fri, 2014-04-18 18:27

Thanks to every new and renewing member that we’ve heard from this spring. If we didn’t hear from you, check your mailbox for your reminder. You can mail your renewal, or make your contribution right here. Thank you! This beautiful raven image was created by Ray Peck and used on Raven Radio posters in 2005.

Legislature to decide fate of Blue Lake loan

Fri, 2014-04-18 17:19

Sitka’s last chance to avoid another electric rate hike is in the hands of the Alaska House of Representatives this weekend. The city wants access to a low-cost loan to finance the final portion of the Blue Lake hydroelectric project. But first it needs the approval of the state legislature.

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Sitka has to raise about $18.5 million to complete the Blue Lake dam expansion. Originally, the city had hoped to get the money as a grant from the state, but with tighter budgets this year, that didn’t happen.

So the city turned to Plan B: a low-cost loan from the Alaska Energy Authority. Such a loan requires approval from the Alaska State Legislature. And that has proven hard to get.

In a last effort, Sitka Senator Bert Stedman added language authorizing the loan to House Bill 297, which is otherwise unrelated to the Blue Lake project. That bill, with the Blue Lake language, passed the Senate unanimously on Thursday night.

It now goes back to the House, where its future is uncertain, and time is short. The 90-day legislative session is scheduled to end on Sunday.

City Administrator Mark Gorman said that whether or not the city gets the loan will have a direct impact on Sitka rate-payers. If the city doesn’t get access to the AEA loan, it will instead issue a municipal bond, which will cost more over the long term.

“The rates are more advantageous to us,” Gorman said. “If we get the AEA loan, we will probably not have to pass on another rate increase to the citizens of Sitka.”

“There is a rate increase scheduled for July of 10%,” he added. “That will have to go into effect. But if we do not get this loan from the AEA, we will probably have to do a second one.”

Even if the language authorizing the loan makes it through the legislature, the loan isn’t a sure thing. The city would then have to negotiate potential loan terms and amount with the Alaska Energy Authority.

 

 

 

Stedman Elementary School construction begins

Fri, 2014-04-18 16:14

Dan Tate and Erica Kludt-Painter stand in front of the Rae C. Stedman Elementary School where construction is ongoing. Photo/Angela Denning

Construction has begun on the Rae C. Stedman Elementary school in Petersburg. The 40-year-old building is getting some new siding, windows, and insulation through a $2.3 million dollar project. The Alaska Commercial Contractors is doing the work. To find out how it’s going, Angela Denning checked in with the Principal Erica Kludt-Painter and Petersburg School District Maintenance Director, Dan Tate.

Angela: “Thank you for meeting me here today. We are outside of the elementary school and clearly there’s construction going on. Guys are working, it looks like, on the siding?”
Erica: “Yes, they have officially started. Well, actually they officially started a few weeks ago really doing some prep work but they have really officially started actually removing the old siding. And they’re moving around the building as you can see.”
Dan: “I think pretty quickly you’ll see walls coming down.”
Angela: “Right in front of us here there’s stacks and piles of materials.”
Dan: “Well, underneath our covered playground we have what appears to be all the windows already stacked up ready to go and it looks like sheet rock and sheathing material.”
Angela: “Okay, and Erica, you were saying to me earlier that it’s not only on the outside here but there’s actually work already taking place on the inside of the school.”
Erica: “Yes, some of the prep work that had to happen early on so that they could have access to all these outside walls, we had to do some moving inside to about half the building as far as even just clearing things away from the walls, and even relocated a classroom, we closed down the library, we moved all the office staff down to the other end of the building to a different room so they could have access to this whole end by the library and down the side of the south side of the building so that they could do some of this work in the spring with the intention being that things would be substantially completed by August, so that we can get school going again without too much chaos.”
Angela: “So, in terms of chaos and how things are going for teachers and students, is everybody used to what’s happening now?”
Erica: “You know, it’s gone really well. We’ve tried to do a lot of phases with it over the last couple of months and our own maintenance crew with Dan and Ed and everybody else that’s on our crew here has been great, just kind of keeping everybody in the loop. We’ve tried to give parents a lot of information as it’s come up. We’ve tried to ease the kids into as far as preparing them for the library and preparing them for where the office is going to be and doors being closed and changing routines for getting back and forth, as you saw this morning, walking across to music class and going to swim and gym. Even the playground, we have relocated all the kids to the other end, you know the other playground on the other end. There is another playground so we’re doing more garden work now and playing on the other playground and the kids have really adjusted well and the teachers have done an excellent job of just helping them know what the routines are and doing it.”
Angela: “And it’s pretty obvious that this playground is off limits. There’s bright, orange, plastic fencing that’s kind of around the perimeter here.”
Dan: “That’s correct. And we’ve been very pleased that the people of Petersburg, the kids, respecting this place right now for the construction workers and that’s really what we need to have happen.”
Angela: “Now, in terms of the details of the timeline and that kind of thing, do you see this being completed by the school year? I mean, do you think things are on schedule?”
Dan: “I believe everything’s on schedule. And everything will be ready to go inside the school building at the end of the summer. We might see some exterior work being done on the outside in September or something like that but for the most part we’re expecting to be completely done.”
Angela: “Alright, well thank you so much for that update. Anything else you wanted to let folks know?”
Erica: “Just that, I would second what Dan said, that really that people have been respectful of this whole process and that parents have been real supportive and that we actually applied to have school, I don’t know if that was out there at some point, but that we’ve actually applied to have school released a week early for the elementary school so that we can really get everything out of there right before the summer for the construction crew. And again, people have been, parents get it, anybody who’s been in and out of the building, you know, they see what’s going on up here and they’ve been very supportive. We haven’t heard anything about that so we always appreciate that.”

Gasline chief says in-state project is no pipedream

Fri, 2014-04-18 16:10

With an oversupply of natural gas in the country, Alaska is exploring the construction of a relatively small, low-pressure gasline within the state’s borders — while still holding out hope for a much larger project should prices improve.

Dan Fauske is the president of the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation — or AGDC. He spoke to Sitka’s Chamber of Commerce on Wednesday about when and where Alaskans may see gas.


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AGDC president Dan Fauske says the construction of a gasline will create 8,000 direct jobs and be “the largest project in the country.” (KCAW photo/Robert Woolsey)

The AGDC is the latest attempt by the state to put something — anything — together to promote the construction of a gasline from the North Slope. The Alaska Gasline Development Corporation was established by the legislature in 2010 to explore in-state options for gas while a more high-profile effort — Gov. Sarah Palin’s Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, or AGIA — was trying to connect North Slope gas to markets in the lower 48 through a gasline in Canada.

Earlier this year, Gov. Parnell announced that the state and TransCanada had called it quits, putting an end to AGIA.

Now, the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation is the only game in town. And Dan Fauske knows this game has been played time and time again.

“We have a plaque in our office. It says, Fairbanks to get Gas. It’s from the 1954 Daily News-Miner. So this debate’s been going on a while.”

The problem is economic. Natural gas is sold in volumes of 1,000 cubic feet at a price — right now — somewhere between $3 and $4. To sell gas, it has to be delivered in pressurized pipelines, or be super-cooled and liquefied.

If you’re close to the gas, it can be a great deal. The city of Anchorage has been served for decades by low-cost gas from oil refineries next door in Cook Inlet.

On the North Slope, where the state has vast reserves of natural gas, Fauske says it’s considered a byproduct.

“For years, the gas a Prudhoe Bay has been reinjected into the ground to force the oil out. The petroleum engineers will tell you that we’ve looked at this gas three and four times. They’ve recycled it.”

The AGDC is exploring a 700-mile gasline from Prudhoe Bay to Nikiski, which would be about one-hundred miles shorter than a gasline to Valdez, where the TransAlaska Oil Pipeline terminates. There are two options on the table. A 36 -inch low-pressure pipeline that would carry so-called “lean gas” — or gas ready for delivery directly to consumers. The other option is a 42-inch pipeline delivering much higher volumes of gas under much higher pressure. The smaller pipeline would cost almost $8-billion and serve primarily Alaskans. The larger pipeline would cost $65-billion, and supply Alaska and the global export market.

The big three oil producers — Exxon Mobil, ConocoPhillips, BP — and even TransCanada would partner with the state in the big pipeline, if it ever pencils out. Fauske says this is a big “if.”

“Oil companies are not charged with taking care of Alaskan citizens. Oil companies do things for their shareholders. I’m not defending them, I’m just saying no one’s going to invest in this kind of project so that 700,000 Alaskans can get a benefit. The reality is: They do things for their shareholders. The irony is that the Alaska Permanent Fund is a huge shareholder of Exxon stock. People say, They should have done this. It’s been looked at thirty times.”

The state invested $355 -million dollars in the Alaska Gasline Development Corporation to perform the preliminary engineering and design for the smaller gasline — called the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline — which will take about 2 years. Fauske believes that sometime in that window, the two projects will meld and the state will ultimately have a 10-percent stake in a gasline that is operational by 2020.

Fauske spent 18 years as the director of the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation before taking over AGDC. He was on Gov. Palin’s AGIA team, which he says was a good idea, when gas was at $10. His expertise is in finance.

The discovery of shale gas in the northern plains of the US undermined AGIA, but Fauske believes this new gasline strategy, based on revenue bonds, is a workable solution for the state’s energy needs, as well as the largest construction project in the country.

But he says gas is nothing akin to the discovery of oil on the North Slope.

“Oil is king. Gas gives us security. From a revenue standpoint gas will never replace oil.”

Asked by a member of the chamber audience to give odds on which gasline would be built, Fauske pointed to the radio microphone and tv camera and declined. Instead, he quoted a line from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, and said, “Something wonderful’s going to happen.”

Halibut Point Rec rules limit vehicles, not seaweed collection

Fri, 2014-04-18 16:08

As Mark Twain would say, reports of the demise of seaweed collecting at the Halibut Point State Recreation Site have been greatly exaggerated.

It turns out that gathering this much-favored garden fertilizer does not require a special use permit. Under a new policy, however, permits are required for anyone who wants to drive a vehicle into the park, for any reason.

Kevin Murphy, the State Parks’ Chief Ranger for Southeast Alaska, said the new policy was prompted by road damage in the rec area.

“It was the damage to the roadbed that kind of forced us into trying to mitigate that,” Murphy said. “And the way to mitigate that was to limit the access down there, at least have some accountability for it. That’s what has driven it all.”

Murphy said that a combination of wet spring weather and too much traffic had caused damage at the end of the roadway. Park employees were seeing six or seven trucks in the park at once, he said, many of them parked off the gravel areas designated for them.

The policy is not aimed at people gathering seaweed for gardens or compost, Murphy said. A press release issued by the State Parks’ citizens’ advisory board earlier this week said that the special use permits were required to limit the amount of seaweed collected. Murphy said that is not accurate — no permit is required to collect seaweed, as long as people walk in.

“Foot traffic, wheelbarrows, buckets, any time,” he said. “Don’t even need to call and let the specialist know. Go for it. It’s really more about vehicle access.”

Anyone who wants to drive in will need a special use permit, whether it’s to collect seaweed, to transport a grill for a picnic, or to provide access for those with disabilities.

A permit might sound daunting, Murphy said, but it’s really just a five-minute phone call to let park staff know when they need to be present to unlock the gate.

“It sounds like a highly technical long piece of paperwork,” Murphy said. “It’s really a one-page thing that has the person’s name on it so we have contact for that person, and establishes a time for us to let them in and let them out and control the access.”

Murphy said that the new policy is in fact a return to an older policy; until about four or five years ago, he said, the main gate was locked at all times.

Anyone with questions, or to get a special-use permit, should call the State Parks Sitka office, at 747-6249.

 

High praise from Assembly for Gorman, Koutchak

Fri, 2014-04-18 15:58

The Sitka Assembly delivered its verdict on the city’s top two employees on Tuesday night (4-15-14).

City Administrator Mark Gorman and City Attorney Robin Koutchak each received their annual evaluations; Koutchak’s evaluation took place in private executive session; Gorman elected to have his evaluation done in public.

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Assembly Member Mike Reif said his overall message for both Gorman and Koutchak was one of appreciation.

“I am so pleased with both of them,” Reif said. “I am so pleased with the way they work with each other, with their staff and with the Assembly. We have a really high functioning team. You have superior talent both in Mark and Robin.”

That said, Reif and assembly members Pete Esquiro and Aaron Swanson expressed concerned that the city is relying too much on studies done by outside consultants. The city is spending up to $250,000 for an outside firm to develop a solid waste management plan, and considering a similar study to create a master plan for the general fund.

Esquiro said he hoped the city would do more of that planning and analysis in-house.

“We’ve got some pretty talented people that work for the city,” Esquiro said. “You know, they’re very capable, and I’d like to see us use our in-house expertise, instead of some of these studies that we’re authorizing. I don’t think we’re necessarily getting the best work products from outside consultants all the time.”

Esquiro had particularly high praise for City Attorney Robin Koutchak

“She doesn’t speak down to people, but she has the ability to speak in a way that most people can understand her,” Esquiro said. “You know, I’m not a lawyer and quite often I could get lost. But she has a great ability to reword things to where we can understand them, and I think it’s a pretty talented person who can do that.”

For her part, Mayor Mim McConnell said that she was pleased with Gorman’s work during the six months that he’s been on the job.

“I think he’s done very well, and I think he’s been well-received by the municipality,” McConnell said.

Gorman said that so far, he’s enjoying the work.

“It’s an incredibly stimulating job,” he said. “Every day I come to work, I’m not sure what’s going to come through the door, but it’s always challenging and engaging, and it’s a real privilege for me to be in this position, to be serving Sitka.”

McConnell said that both Gorman and Koutchak had proposed going on contract; right now, both are city employees, and covered by the city’s personnel policy.

Gorman said he recommended to the assembly that, as Administrator, he be placed on contract, because it would offer the assembly more flexibility in hiring and firing the city’s top official.

“From their perspective, I think they’re served better by having their CEO under a contract,” Gorman said. “It gives them more flexibility as they move forward. From my vantage point, it’s fairly neutral, but it’s my advice to them that I think it’s a better tool for them for managing their administrator.”

McConnell said the assembly will consider the issue.

Council OKs $100K more for water consultant

Fri, 2014-04-18 15:27

Following a somewhat heated public hearing on the issue Thursday, the Ketchikan City Council unanimously approved a budget amendment to provide an extra $100,000 for the city’s contract with engineering consultants CH2MHill.

Members of the public speaking against the budget amendment questioned the need to use CH2MHill for certain activities, such an answering concerns from the public about the city’s new chloramine water treatment system, which was turned on April 7th.

Jeannie Wills told the Council that city staff should be able to answer the questions themselves. Wills adds that she believes CH2MHill is biased in favor of the use of chloramine.

“I wonder if it would have been better to get a different third party and not the person that you paid all that money to build that plant,” she said. “It just seems like there is this huge conflict of interest there.”

Council Member Bob Sivertsen responded that a different firm would need to spend significant time studying the background, and learning all about the project before it would be able to answer any questions.

Speaking of background, here’s a little information for those who might not be familiar with the issue. For many years, the city’s water treatment system has been using free chlorine – essentially bleach – to kill organisms in the water that can make people sick. Unfortunately, when chlorine comes into contact with organic material, it produces byproducts. Some of those byproducts are regulated by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, because studies have indicated that they can cause cancer.

Ketchikan’s water had too many of those regulated byproducts, and the EPA told the city it needed to do something to reduce the levels. There were options. One was a filtration plant, but the cost estimate was high – somewhere in the range of $30 million. The other was a combination of chloramine and ultraviolet light.

Chloramine is chlorine mixed with a small amount of ammonia. It also produces some of those regulated byproducts, but not usually as many. It also was a lot less expensive to build that system, so that’s what the city chose to do.

That was about 10 years ago. This winter, the city announced it was ready to turn the new system on, and that’s when a group formed to oppose the switch. United Citizens for Better Water members are worried mostly about the health effects of chloramine. They got a petition to put the issue on the ballot, collected signatures and turned it in. The city is in the middle of reviewing that petition, to make sure it passes legal muster.

That brings us to the present. Because of the public opposition, the city used CH2MHill’s services more than anticipated, and the money in the contract was used up. City officials said they’ll need the firm’s guidance through fall, at least, which is why they wanted the $100,000 budget adjustment.

Amanda Mitchell, who spearheads the United Citizens group, said she’s concerned about at least a couple of the items listed under CH2MHill’s proposed scope of work. One is assistance with the petition review.

“Why does CH2MHill think that they need to review our citizen initiative?” she said. “They’re not involved in our local ordinances, and we’re looking at paying them $10,000 to fight against us wanting to vote on this. That’s kind of disturbing.”

City Mayor Lew Williams III responded that the only person who will make the decision about the petition is the city attorney. But, the attorney might have technical questions, and needs to be able to get answers from an expert.

City Manager Karl Amylon added that the $10,000 is a placeholder, and the city may well not spend that much for the attorney’s technical advice.

“Money will not be borrowed unless expenses are incurred,” he said. “In terms of the technical support that CH2MHill will provide to the city attorney in this context, they’re the experts on the design of the plant. They didn’t build the plant, they designed it. If the city attorney needs their assistance to answer questions he has, that’s what this money is intended for. It may or may not be expended.”

Amylon added that it is common for municipal governments to hire professional firms to provide expertise in specific areas.

A couple more people spoke during public comment about chloramine, asking the Council to rethink its decision. One, Sally Balch, said she’s been testing her water and it appears that the pH level had risen since the city started chloramine. She said she would like clear, simple answers from city officials.

“If I really felt, heart to heart, that it was safe for us, I wouldn’t oppose it, because I trust you guys. I really do,” she said. “I voted for most of you guys to be here, because I believe in what you’re doing.”

But, she said, the Council should take a step back and rethink the decision about chloramine.

Later, during Council discussion of the budget amendment, Williams asked  City Attorney Mitch Seaver to explain how he would use CH2MHill for the petition review.

“I have most of the information I think I’m going to require from Mr. Kleinegger,” Seaver said. “There are some technical and complex issue that I want to be able to speak with CH2MHill. I don’t foresee it being anywhere near the amount in this estimate.”

The budget amendment passed unanimously.

During Council comments at the end of the meeting, Council Member Marty West noted that the city of Portland, Oregon, is known for its environmental conscientiousness.

“I was noticing a news item today that they are going to discharge 38 million gallons of water from their reservoir because they found that a guy peed in it,” she said. “So, they take their water purity and quality extremely seriously. And they also have chloraminated water.”

If the ballot initiative proposed by the anti-chloramine group is approved by the city, it would go before voters within two months. If city voters then chose to prohibit the use of chloramine, the city likely would have to move forward with filtration.

The city’s legal review of the ballot initiative petition must be completed by May 2nd.

The chloramine issue is moving beyond city limits. At the prompting of people opposed to chloramine, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly has scheduled a presentation about the water treatment process for its next meeting; and the Ketchikan School Board is supposed to talk about the issue, as well.

Assembly to discuss repairs to pool roof

Fri, 2014-04-18 15:11

The Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly meets on Monday, and in addition to a presentation from city officials about the switch to chloramine water disinfection, the Assembly will talk about repairs to the roof over the borough’s new pool.

An executive session to discuss potential litigation is on the agenda, and likely will take place before the Assembly discusses what action to take. According to the agenda statement, the pool opened in July of 2012, and condensation issues were noticed about two months later.

The borough took action to correct what was causing the condensation, but damage already had taken place. According to the agenda statement, some sections need to be replaced, and continued monitoring will be required to make sure more work isn’t needed.

Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst has recommended that the Assembly move forward with repairs, despite the lack of legal resolution. He writes that money remains in the original project budget to cover those repairs.

The Assembly meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. Monday in Borough Assembly chambers at the White Cliff building. Public comment will be heard at the start of the meeting.

Fri Apr 18, 2014

Fri, 2014-04-18 11:58


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Assembly delivers positive evaluations for administrator, attorney. State parks requires permits for vehicles at HPR; seaweed gathering on foot is allowed. State gasline exec outlines Alaska’s stand alone project for Sitka Chamber.

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