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Southeast Alaska News
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).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!
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.
Jeff Budd and Dr. Ana Dittmar discuss an upcoming iconography workshop sponsored by St. Michael’s Cathedral and the Greater Sitka Arts Council.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 some things the same.
This week a historic preservation consultant and two architectural historians are documenting over 70 properties along Sitka’s waterfront, with an eye toward one day creating a historic district on the National Register.
Rob Meinhardt and Anne Pollnow will host a public meeting Tue Jan 14 to discuss the possibilities for a Sitka Historic District, beginning at 5:30 PM in Harrigan Centennial Hall.
Anne Pollnow is a member of Sitka’s Downtown Revitalization Committee. She thinks the times — and attitudes — have changed.
“There is that sense that this is my property,” she says. “I don’t want anybody telling me what to do with it — completely understandable. These myths are being dispelled. It’s already happening, and showing in the lower 48 and in Alaska, that it’s working, helping communities to revive their local economies.”
Pollnow is a professional archaeologist, and she’s been involved with the Sitka Historic Preservation Commission. Although past efforts to create a historic district in Sitka have failed, it’s evident that walking down Lincoln St., from Sitka National Historical Park to the ANB Founders Hall, that the community is really invested in its history.
Rob Meinhardt is visiting from Wasilla. “It sounds like the district has grown organically — even though there’s not a formal designation of a district — through people’s interest and their pride in the community, a district has sort of formed on its own,” he says. Meinhardt’s business is called True North Sustainable Development Solutions. “What we want to do is channel that, and figure out where it is that the community needs to go.”
Meinhardt says there are three kinds of historic districts: Local, when you have a small area with a clear historic core; conservation, where there are historic structures but a central historic theme is harder to nail down; and National Register.
Sitka already has 19 sites on the National Register of Historic Places, including the entire Sheldon Jackson campus. Meinhardt thinks this is the way the community should go.
“National Register Districts are great because if you leave them as-is there are really no requirements for keeping a property a certain way. A lot of times certain people don’t want restrictions in their district, so the National Register, there’s no restrictions per say, unless there’s federal funding coming in, or if you’re going after some kind of federal tax credit or tax deduction.”
Historic districts are nothing new in Alaska — many communities have them, Juneau and Ketchikan to name two. Meinhardt says that Juneau adopted a more stringent design standard in its historic district, but it’s paid off for property owners.
“When you talk stabilization of property values, when you talk increase in real estate market values — it is exactly what people don’t want that increases those market values. So, the community keeps a strong hold on what that district looks like.”
Meinhardt says the first step in creating a historic district is to engage the community — businesses and residents — in defining what they want out of a historic district. Next comes an inventory of historic properties, and then applying the criteria of the National Register to that inventory. If it all adds up, Meinhardt then brings it back to the community to submit an application to the National Park Service, which administers the register.
Anne Pollnow says this is not about making Sitka look historic, with quaint streetlights, or other accessories. Creating a historic district is about celebrating what’s already here.
“Part of marketing Sitka is marketing our assets. And our assets are our cultural resources and our buildings — our history.”
Funding for True North’s survey work comes from a certified local government grant. Pollnow says similar grants recently have paid for an assessment of the Sage Building, preservation work on the ANB Founders Hall and Japonski Boat House, and on travel for Russian scholars to Sitka for a conference on Russian America.
She called it one of the last — and best — sources of government funding for historic preservation available.
Petersburg’s school superintendent is leaving the district at the end of the school year.
Rob Thomason submitted his resignation to the school board Thursday and plans to retire and spend more time with family after five years in Petersburg.
Board president Jean Ellis said she was not surprised by the news. “I knew it was coming but we are very sad to see him go,” Ellis said. “He has done a fantastic job for Petersburg and both he and his wife Susan have added a great deal to our community.”
Ellis called Thomason a positive influence for the school district and said one of his biggest accomplishments was improving morale. Thomason was named superintendent of the year in 2013 by the Alaska Council of Schoool Administrators. He was hired in Petersburg in 2009.
Ellis said Thomason will help lead the search for his replacement. “And we’re not going to pay him any extra for it. It will be part of his regular contract but that should speed up the process a little bit cause he’s right here, we won’t have to bring in somebody from outside. And we’re hopeful. I think he’s going to be a difficult person to replace because he has done such a fantastic job but we’re hopeful.” Ellis said the board wants to have someone chosen for the job by the end of March.
Thomason and his wife Susan plan to move south to be with grandkids. Joe Viechnicki talked with Thomason about his decision to retire.
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Juneau Democratic Sen. Dennis Egan says the upcoming legislative session will be different from last year’s simply because there are fewer state dollars to go around.
Egan represents Juneau, Petersburg, Skagway and several other small Southeast communities. He’s one of two Democrats last year who joined a Republican-led majority coalition in the Senate and thinks budgets will be tighter this year. “The governor’s budget of course was put forward, operating and capital. And on the capital side there are not that many projects,” Egan said. “But it’s not just Southeast Alaska, it’s everyone.”
The governor’s proposed capital budget includes projects totaling 85 million dollars for Egan’s district, with all but 10 million dollars worth funded by the federal government for bridges, roads and airports. Of the 10 million funded by the state, half would go to the Juneau access project. The rest would fund water and sewer projects in Juneau and Petersburg and some building maintenance in Juneau.
Egan expects to be able to add some items to the capital budget for his district in the upcoming session. As for the operating budget, he’s concerned about flat funding for education. “Of course there’s some inflation increases but you know we haven’t had an increase in the base student allocation for now this will be four years and I think that’s unfair to municipalities like Juneau and Petersburg and Skagway, Haines,” he said. “Our communities fund what we can locally, what we call the cap. We fund as much as we can on a local basis. It’s up to the state, its written right in the constitution that one of the main focuses is to provide education to Alaska’s kids.”
As chair of the senate transportation committee, Egan says he’s concerned with the plans for new Alaska class ferries, since the state has decided to go with smaller day-boat ferries. He also thinks the state should be spending money to design a replacement for the Tustamena, which operates around Homer and Kodiak.
He thinks there’s no chance of seeing a replacement main-line ferry in Southeast during the Parnell administration. “I think we’re going to get these two ferries they’re talking about that will be running in the Lynn Canal, I think we’re gonna get this but we need to start talking about replacing the Malaspina, the Taku and the Matanuska as well,” Egan said. “And I see nothing on the wall of talking about putting some funding in to construct a new main-liner. And we need one here in Southeast.”
Egan was prime sponsor on seven bills last session – all are still in various senate committees. They range from bills on pharmacy audits to public employee retirement benefit options to a measure on political activity by a classified employee.
Egan has filed a letter of intent to run for re-election next fall. That’s despite a trying year medically for the senator who said he was medevaced out of Juneau twice last year and spent 84 days at Virginia Mason medical center in Seattle, following complications from surgery to improve circulation in his leg. “I’m enthused about representing Juneau and Southeast. And I think Bert Stedman and I, Bert’s and R(epublican), I’m a D(emocrat), but we work really well together.”
Egan could have competition for his senate seat. Republican Bill Thomas of Haines has filed to run although he has not specified whether he’ll seek a seat in the house or senate. After this year, the senate district will drop Petersburg and pick up Haines.
Hear what other Southeast lawmakers want to happen during the session:
More links will be posted as reports are produced.
The mother of a Petersburg man put together a package of mugs to send to her son and his fellow soldiers in Afghanistan this month. Janet Holten has dubbed the effort “Operation Cup of Cheer” and will be mailing out her second package of mugs and supplies to her son Gabe Seaman, stationed with the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborn division in eastern Afghanistan since November.
Joe Viechnicki spoke with Holten about the Cup of Cheer effort.
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Pianist Matt King is one of several out-of-state musicians who are visiting Ketchikan to add their talents to the Jazz & Cabaret festival this weekend, presented by First City Players. King and First City’s Elizabeth Nelson discuss the upcoming performance with KRBD.
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Audubon Christmas Bird Count organizers Jen Cedarleaf and Vicki Vosberg discuss the results of this year’s count, which took place on January 4.