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Southeast Alaska News
House and Senate Democrats will push legislation this session to expand Medicaid in Alaska.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, told reporters Thursday that expanding Medicaid “makes sense both financially and morally.”
“Congress made a generous offer to the states when it agreed to pay 100 percent of the cost of expansion for the first three years and between 90 and 100 percent thereafter,” he said.
Lt. Commander Michael Newell formally took charge of the Sitka-based Coast Guard cutter Maple today (Thu 1-30-2014), in an Assumption-of-Command ceremony held on the ship.
The Maple is Newell’s first command. He previously served as the executive officer – or second in command — of the Coast Guard Cutter Hickory, which is based in Homer.
Speaking with KCAW before the ceremony, Newell said he’d always wished he’d spent more time in Sitka, and he fought for the assignment on the Maple. He said he’s thrilled to be back in Alaska after a brief assignment in California.
“I want to try to instill in my shipmates that we need to value the experience that we have up here in Alaska,” Newell said. “As a Coast Guardsman you can be stationed anywhere in the world, and not many people get to experience in Alaska.”
“It’s important to me to try to instill in the crew that this may be their only two or three, maybe four years in Alaska, and try to hold onto the memories that they make here.”
Newell took over from the Maple’s executive officer, Lt. Raymond Reichl, who had been serving as temporary commander since October 1.
The Maple’s previous chief, Lt. Commander Fred Seaton, was relieved of command this fall, after the Coast Guard received reports of a “poor command climate” on the Maple, and conducted an investigation. Seaton has been temporarily assigned to Air Station Sitka.
Alaska district commander Rear Admiral Thomas Ostebo acknowledged that the ceremony was a new start for the Maple.
“The ship’s been through a lot in the last several months,” Ostebo said. He added that the future of the ship “looks bright.”
Ostebo also used the ceremony to deliver a welcome piece of news to the Maple’s executive officer, Lt. Reichl. After serving as temporary commander of the Maple for the past four months, Reichl has been assigned his first permanent command – as captain of the Coast Guard Cutter Henry Blake, based in Everett, Washington. Reichl will leave the Maple this summer.
The CEO of the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium says it’s been a rough couple of years, but the organization’s finances have stabilized.
Charles Clement is only 39 years old, but he told the Sitka Chamber of Commerce this week (1-29-14) that the experience had cost him some gray hairs and about 25 pounds. After taking the top job at SEARCH in early 2012, he had the unpleasant responsibility of reporting a $4-million dollar loss the previous year.interview with media shortly after taking the job, Clement described a rash of problems plaguing SEARCH: issues with vendors, accounts payable, billing systems, and electronic health records. SEARHC has since cut programs, like the Bill Brady Healing Center and its air ambulance service, and restructured its employee benefits.
Clement did not say that every problem was resolved at SEARHC, but he did say that the organization was ready to look outward — and giving a Powerpoint presentation to the Chamber of Commerce was a small step in changing the message.
“I think hopefully you see that our participation is trying to step up and look out to the community about how we might be better partners. And I think through things like this — helping me fix my computer, and get all situated — we have the opportunity to exchange ideas, and develop a message that is sort of cross-pollination of ideas. I’m sure you guys are doing it, but by standing up and saying, Chuck you should do it also, then I’m also on message.”
Clement also discussed the duplication of services in communities, like Sitka and Juneau, where SEARHC is not the only health care provider. It’s been a source of tension in the recent past. Clement said that living in our respective “silos” used to be the norm, but he saw collaboration as the future.
“These are very difficult times to be in the health care business — incredibly difficult times. They are times of great adversity. And the comfort I find is that wherever I go, whoever I talk to, there’s sort of a common interest. There’s no reason for these things to drive us apart. In fact, they should drive us together to find new ways to collaborate, innovate, and not duplicate services within the respective communities that we provide.”
Clement, however, did not rule out the advantages of consolidation, especially in rural health care. Last year SEARHC acquired Sitka Medical Center. He said he receives daily Google alerts about similar moves around the country, as providers try to broaden their base of services.
During Q&A Clement turned to city administrator Mark Gorman and asked him to “throw me a softball.” Gorman, who took the top job in Sitka last October, is the former vice-president of Community Health Services at SEARCH.
Gorman asked, What would help you be successful in Sitka? Clement responded that it was remaining as transparent as possible, and maintaining an atmosphere of collaboration. He said this approach is the key to changing SEARHC’S course.
“I have no desire to repeat the last two years, which was this scramble to put out fires. And it’s incumbent on me to reach out to anybody who will listen and say, By working together we can make sure we don’t put ourselves through this.”
Clement punctuated his address with statistics: SEARHC remains an economic force in the region with annual revenues of about $115-million. It employs about 1,000 people in 18 facilities in Southeast — 500 of whom work in Sitka. The average salary is $66,000 a year.
The School Board meeting Wednesday night marked the first time Ketchikan’s borough management publicly talked with the school board about their lawsuit against the state. As board members looked on, the borough manager used blocks and a ten dollar bill to explain why the borough is suing Alaska over education funding.
Borough Manager Dan Bockhorst made a trade with Superintendent Robert Boyle. Boyle gave Bockhorst a $10 bill, and Bockhorst gave Boyle $8.40 in return.
$10 for $8.40? Bockhorst said that’s the kind of trade the Ketchikan Gateway Borough makes with the State of Alaska year after year, but at a scale 2.6 million times greater.
Because of Ketchikan’s borough status, taxpayers are required to fund a portion of the public education system here.
The Borough argues in its suit that the state is shirking its responsibility to fund basic educational need.
Bockhorst held a red block in his hand that represented the money Ketchikan pays each year for basic educational need.
“Ketchikan taxpayers have been forced to pay one hundred million dollars in the past 22 years to backfill the state’s underfunding of basic need,” he said.
Bockhorst says he hopes other boroughs in Alaska will support Ketchikan in the suit.
So far, State Representative Tammie Wilson, from Fairbanks, is the only legislator who has expressed public support. She filed a bill to repeal the local contribution.
After Bockhorst’s presentation, the school board moved on to a discussion of the school district’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget.
One line in the budget board members said would be much discussed going forward is a proposed reduction in the preschool program staff, from eight teachers to five. There could also be cuts to the music program staff, Superintendent Boyle said, but the budget is very preliminary.
“I’m not saying this is a good budget,” Boyle said. “But it feels better than what we have typically.”
Board member Colleen Scanlon said she is not in favor of the preschool cuts.
“What I’ve been told and heard about the preschool restructure right now, I’m not in support of that and I’m gonna want to talk about that more,” she said.
On the proposed school calendar for next year, a five-day vacation is scheduled for Thanksgiving break, instead of the usual three days.
School district HR director Rick Rafter asked board members if they were interested in looking at a potential four-day school week for the middle and high schools, and members said they would like to learn more about the possibility.
Several requests were quickly approved at the meeting. The computer lab at Ketchikan High School will have new iMacs to replace the six-year-old computers there.
A Student Safety Committee, which was the idea of board member Trevor Shaw, was approved.
The board approved a leave of absence for teacher Dan Ortiz, who is running for political office.
And, the policy to boost favor for local bids was adopted.
Federal scientists are predicting a catch of nearly 30 million pink salmon in Southeast Alaska this summer. That’s a little better than the forecast put out last fall by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for a catch of 22 million humpies. But its still not even one third of the record setting catch of 2013.
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National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration fisheries scientists compile their forecast based on an annual trawl survey of juvenile pink salmon.
“It’s the peak count in either june or july for a particular year,” said Joe Orsi, a fish research biologist for the Alaska Fisheries Science Center in Juneau. “They basically have gone to sea for two-three months. And they’ve undergone most of their survival which happens near shore. We’re sampling out in the middle of Icy Strait as all these stocks move past. So we’re getting a sub-sample of the fish as they head out to the ocean.”
In 2012, fishing boats caught over 21 million pinks, when the parents of this year’s run were returning to spawn. Orsi said scientists have started assigning an annual rank for the ocean conditions observed for the outgoing juvenile pinks. That’s based on 17 years of observing other variables like ocean currents, migration timing and predation by other salmon species. Those factors ranked the incoming pink salmon return at number 13 out of the past 17 years.
Federal scientists have been forecasting Southeast pink returns for a decade. Orsi noted the forecast has been close for most of that time. “When we’ve actually made forecasts for the last 10 years, 8 of the last 10 years have been very close, like within seven percent of the actually harvest. This last year was an exception and so was 2006, which was a result of the really poor ocean conditions of 2005. So all in all our forecasts have been pretty good.”
Neither the federal or state forecasts were anywhere near the record setting harvest of 2013. Fishing boats caught over 94 million pinks caught last year, and forecasts were a little more than half of that amount.
On other note for the upcoming season, Ocean Beauty Seafoods does plan to operate its processing plant in Petersburg this year. The facility was shuttered in 2012 after the state ferry Matanuska collided with the cannery building. The company also did not operate the plant in 2010 because of a weak salmon run. That’s not the case for 2014, according to Ocean Beauty vice president of marketing Tom Sunderland. “Certainly the plant’s recovered from the damages that it had. It’s all fine, it’s all running,” Sunderland said. “Everything’s up to speed. And we’re actually hoping for a decent catch in Southeast this year so I think that running the plant will be great for us this year.”
Ocean Beauty and Icicle Seafoods operate Petersburg’s two salmon canneries.
Construction activity in Petersburg picked up a little last year.
The local government issued more permits for building construction and renovations in 2013 than it did the year before.
The Petersburg borough’s building official Leo Luczak compiles the annual numbers. “Well we had over over 2.6 million dollars in new building project evaluations, or values, excuse me, and 86 building permits, that’s up from 64 last year, five new houses, as opposed to two, or maybe it was three the year before and permit revenue was about the same,” Luczak said.
Total value of new buildings constructed in Petersburg last year was over $2.6 million. Some $1.7 million worth of that was in new commercial or industrial buildings, almost nine hundred thousand dollars worth was in new residential home construction.
Luczak expects the construction to continue in 2014. “I think it’s a busy building year once again. I know all the contractors I talk to are booked up. Looks like things are going just fine in the permitting and building aspects.”
Permit numbers in the early part of this century are well below peak construction years during the mid-90s when the city of Petersburg saw several years with over 200 permits issued.
School board member Trevor Shaw gives details. SB013014
You and your family are invited to a garlic-themed potluck for this year’s membership meeting, upstairs in the Sons of Norway Hall.
WASHINGTON — The farm bill moving toward approval in Congress includes a one-year extension of a federal program that compensates rural counties for federal lands they can’t tax. About 1,900 local governments — mostly in the West — received a total of $400 million last year under the program, known as Payment in Lieu of Taxes or PILT.
More than three-quarters of the money went to 12 Western states, with the largest shares going to California, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.
Tlingit-Haida Central Council held its first Native Issues forum at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center Wednesday.
Melissa Kookesh helped organize the lunchtime forums, which are held throughout legislative session. She said the council has held them for at least 10 years and that they’re an opportunity for the community, Native and non-Native, to meet with legislators over lunch.
“We like to break bread with each other and this is a way of breaking the ice, so to speak,” Kookesh said.
ANCHORAGE — Conditions were too unstable Wednesday to clear the only road into the city at the end of the trans-Alaska pipeline, which remains cut off by land from the rest of the state for a fifth day because of avalanches.
Drainage has slowed from a lake formed by one of the slides, and the water is too deep for heavy equipment to pass, the Alaska Department of Transportation said.
JUNEAU — The Senate Education Committee began hearings Wednesday on establishing a reading program for kindergarten through third-grade public school students to meet grade-level expectations.
Sponsor Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, says the bill was not going to be pushed through the system in a hurry in order to give an appropriate time to discuss content and additions.
In many respects, the bill mirrors Colorado’s Read Act passed by that state in 2012.
JUNEAU — Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest sued the state health commissioner Wednesday over regulations that would further define what constitutes a “medically necessary” abortion for purposes of receiving Medicaid funding.
Sitkans this week (Tue 1-28-14) dedicated a new bike shelter downtown. The small, timber-framed structure is actually the culmination of a large undertaking to help develop an industry around young-growth trees in the Tongass.
It’s a little building, only 10×12 feet square, but its heavy timbers and mortise-and-tenon joinery make you feel like you’re in the entryway of a lodge or a church.
Hughey admitted to the small crowd gathered at the shelter’s dedication that becoming involved in forest policy was not exactly his top priority for working on the project.
“My primary interest in this whole thing is as a woodworker.” he said. “I have enjoyed this kind of project my whole life, and this was really fun. I really hope that it serves well, and that it calls attention to the potential of the second-growth forest.”
So while it’s not connected to a lodge or a church, the little shelter is part of something larger — an effort to utilize the trees that have re-grown in the clearcuts of past decades.
Andrew Thoms is the director of the Sitka Conservation Society, which spearheaded the shelter project.
“And all along the process the goal was to figure out what can we do with second-growth timber, how do we use it, what are some of the characteristics of second-growth, what are the obstacles we have to get over, and how do we figure out what we can do with this resource.”
Young growth is a large industry in the lower 48, but the economics of timber harvesting are different there. Much of the old growth is gone. Thoms believes the Tongass is stuck in a paradigm.
“In Southeast Alaska we’re still logging old growth. There are still huge old growth timber sales that are happening in very important ecological lands, that are very uneconomical to harvest. But the system is still set up that old growth is being harvested. That’s the momentum that the Forest Service is on.”
Helping change that momentum is an objective of the Sitka Conservation Society, but they can’t claim the idea. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack outlined the transition to second growth in a speech in Seattle shortly after he was appointed by the newly-elected Barack Obama. He reiterated his position last summer.
Marjorie Hennessy, also with the Sitka Conservation Society, says this route was a mixture of necessity and intention.
“It’s important to have all of those stakeholders involved somehow and have their hands on the project, from the millers down on Prince of Wales to a volunteer who was just putting a nail in the siding. We just want to make sure that everyone understands the importance of young growth and what it can do for our communities.”
So what can it do for our communities? Randy Hughey’s students got a look a potential vocation. Maybe someone else will see this shelter tucked between the Sitka Sound Science Center and the Crescent Harbor playground and imagine other potential. At least that’s what Andrew Thoms hopes.
“The bike shelter’s definitely overbuilt, but in doing that we learned what we can do with it, people learned how to do it. And now it’s our hope someone’s going to look at that and say, I want a house built out of it. Or if you’re a contractor or a builder, I can do this with that material. It’s really a showcase piece to sort out the kinks, and then inspire on what we can do next.”
Funding for the second-growth bike shelter came from the National Forest Foundation — their Community Capacity and Land Stewardship Program. Two other previous second-growth projects are not far away — recreational log cabins in Sitka’s Starrigavan Valley and in Wrangell, both managed by the Forest Service.
According to Alaska State Troopers, at about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Troopers went to a Ketchikan home to investigate a report of a disturbance between two men.
Troopers allegedly discovered a marijuana grow operation inside the residence. The local Southeast Alaska Cities Against Drugs task force responded to the scene and took over the investigation.
According to a Troopers report, 48 growing marijuana plants with an aggregate weight of 47 ounces allegedly were found inside the home. Troopers say an additional 96 ounces of processed marijuana was seized.
Multiple felony charges against the two men were forwarded to the Ketchikan District Attorney’s Office for review.
The location of the grow op was not provided in the report, Troopers did not identify the men involved, and the DA’s office declined to provide any information about the case.
A First Nations tribe is concerned about the long-term effects of a proposed mine in British Columbia near the Alaska border.
According to Bell Media, a Gitanyow Fisheries Authority biologist recently outlined those concerns to the Terrace City Council.
Kevin Koch told the council that Seabridge Gold’s proposed KSM Mine — located near Stewart just over the border from Hyder — would see 130-thousand tons of ore mined daily.
Koch said the Gitanyow are mainly concerned about the effects that acidic tailings from the mine could have on the nearby Treaty and Teigan Creeks, along with the Bell-Irving River.
“It’s a super clean pristine valley,” he said. “Very high fish densities (with) extremely high grizzly bear (and) moose habitats.”
The project plan currently calls for a tailings management facility located about 14 miles west of the mine.
Koch said he doesn’t understand why the acidic tailings would be transferred to an unpolluted area, when there are rivers near the mine site that already have naturally high acidic levels and little-to-no fish populations.
“We disagree with the principle of transporting billions of tons of acidic material from a watershed that’s already naturally polluted to one that is naturally pristine,” he said.
Seabridge Gold declined to comment, citing its current participation in the mine’s environmental assessment process.
If built, the KSM project would become one of the largest open-pit mines in the world.
(KRBD and Bell Media have a cooperative agreement to share news stories of mutual interest to Southeast Alaska and British Columbia listeners.)
Work continues on one major harbor project in Petersburg this winter while another one is scheduled to see some work begin as early as next week.
The $7.1 million rebuild of North Harbor is on schedule to be completed this spring with water lines, electrical equipment and more pilings going in this month.
Meanwhile, demolition of an old fuel dock is expected to start in early February to make way for the new $7.8 million vehicle-accessible, drive-down dock in South Harbor. That harbor will also see improvements to the crane dock later this year, as that contract has been advertised this winter. Joe Viechnicki spoke with harbormaster Glo Wollen for an update on the harbor construction, starting off with the work in North Harbor.
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The crane dock widening is planned to start September 15th right after the last cruise ship of the season. In addition, a couple of smaller projects, a replacement launch ramp float and new troller work float will also be installed in the harbors this year.
State health officials continue to record more confirmed cases of flu hitting Alaskans this winter and say it’s not too late to get influenza vaccine.
Here in Petersburg, new public health nurse Erin Michael says she’s been busy with immunizations this fall and winter. Michael notes that the state has waived the administrative fee for people getting a flu shot through the end of March. That includes young children and people who don’t have health insurance. Joe Viechnicki spoke with Michael about the immunizations she has available.
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The public health nurse’s office is open Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. and closed for lunch from noon to 1 p.m. It’s on the lower level of the Petersburg Medical Center. They ask to people to call and make an appointment at 772-4611.
School officials in Petersburg are expecting the trend of declining student enrollment will continue next year, which would impact state funding to the school district. While larger districts in Alaska are facing big budget shortfalls and laying off teachers, Petersburg’s school district expects to be able to weather a drop in funding thanks to conservative budgeting and not refilling all staff positions. However officials expect more difficult budget decisions are coming if the declining student numbers continue.
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Petersburg’s school district is starting to develop its spending plan for next year and is facing another year with fewer students. Finance director Karen Quitslund said they’re expecting 424 students in the three schools next year, a drop of six from the current year. “Compared to 2007 we had 561,” Quitslund said. “So, the trend is that we are steady slope declining. And we also can look at by school level and see that that trend is also following. We have a little bit of fluctuation in actually all the schools but the trend is still declining.”
Student enrollment peaked in 1997 when the district had 769 students. With a few exceptions, its been dropping every year since. Student numbers impact funding from the state and the bottom line for state money could be down around 300-thousand dollars next year.
Supertintendent Rob Thomason said budget cutting may eventually have to happen in the future but for the short term the district has been conservative in its spending. “I like to say we’re letting a little bit of air out of the balloon, but we’re not switching balloons or popping the balloon. We, over the last five years, have had great success with leveraging retirements and people who’ve moved, just through attrition, we’re going to continue to try and do that.”
If the enrollment projection holds up and dips down below 425 student, the district will no longer qualify for money for three schools under the state’s complicated school funding formula. Nevertheless, Thomason said the district will continue to operate its elementary, middle and high school. “There will be fewer people to deliver some of the services but we have fewer kids to whom to deliver services,” he said. “The day may come for our community where we have to look at what programs can we actually offer but right now and I would say for at least the next three years we are in pretty good shape in terms of allowing attrition to make the adjustment for our loss in funding.”
Thomason and Quitslund discussed next year’s budget picture with the school board this month and will be submitting their annual request to the borough government for the local funding this winter. Thomason said he’s not anticipating an increase or decrease in that local request, which has been 1.8 million dollars.
Over the long term, Thomason expected that the trend of declining enrollment will continue. He’s still optimistic for a turnaround. “In spite declining enrollment, in spite of declining funding, we still have a very strong picture, very strong school district and Petersburg is a really exciting place to be. I just keep believing that Petersburg is so great that there’s gotta be a renaissance here. There’s going to be people coming in. Jobs are going to be created. I don’t know where the bottom is but we’ve got to be getting close. I just wanna reassure people, it’s still going to be a great school district even if we talk about reducing funding. We are not where many school districts in the state of Alaska are.”
In February, the district will hold budget work sessions with administrators and an advisory committee and the board will start reviewing the draft spending plan in May.
A Petersburg man facing charges of possession and distribution of child pornography will not go to trial until September, if at all.
The former maintenance director at the Petersburg School District Tye Leif Petersen has pleaded not guilty to the charges. The judge and attorneys in the case held a status conference Tuesday in US District Court in Juneau. Petersen is in custody and also attended the conference. His defense attorney Cara McNamara told judge Timothy Burgess there was a good possibility the case will be resolved before it goes to trial.
Another status conference is planned for March 28th. Petersen’s trial is scheduled for September 15th. He resigned his job and was arrested after leaving Petersburg in late October.