Sitka’s water system is back in business.
Local officials feared the coastal community would run out of water this morning after the main line broke.
A contractor rebuilding Sitka’s Sawmill Creek Road damaged the line yesterday afternoon while blasting rock. Water began flowing through the pipe again this morning after repairs were completed.
A Sitka official says the Sawmill Creek Road contractor is responsible for the cost of repairing Wednesday’s water-main break.
Sitka Public Works Director Michael Harmon says Anchorage-based Quality Asphalt Paving will be asked to cover the costs. City and company crews worked together to reach and fix the damage.
He says it’s at least the second time blasting has stopped water flowing from Blue Lake, Sitka’s water source.
“They are responsible, definitely in our mind. And we will be pursuing to recoup the funds, not only of our staff, but equipment and so forth,” Harmon says.
The company did not immediately respond to a call requesting comment.
Officials feared the community would run out of water this (Thursday) morning after the line from Blue Lake was damaged.
The contractor ruptured the line about 3 p.m. Wednesday while blasting rock. Water began flowing through the pipe again this (Thursday) morning after repairs were completed.
The city’s industrial park and some nearby neighbors were reconnected later because they’re supplied with a different pipe, which also broke. Users in those areas were advised to boil water during the next two days.
Harmon says the earlier contractor-caused water-main break took place in June.
He also says a September water-line break closer to town happened at the same time blasting took place. He says the explosion may have increased pressure, blowing out a weak, old pipe.
Officials on Wednesday asked residents to conserve water to slow the drain on Sitka’s storage tanks. They said the tanks held about a 12-hour supply.
Meanwhile, grocers saw a run on packaged water Wednesday night.
Max Rule is chief financial officer of the parent company for two Sitka stores. He says shelves were largely emptied of bottles, as well as gallon sizes.
“And interestingly enough, we also sold a tremendous amount of water containers. So I imagine folks were probably taking those containers and filling those up from the taps and getting stockpiled for the evening,” he says.
He says water is back on shelves today (Thursday).
Options for health insurance coverage can be pretty limited in Alaska for small businesses and the self-employed. That includes commercial fishermen, who make up a major segment of the economy. Some in the industry say the cost and lack of access to comprehensive health insurance is a barrier to new fishermen and an ongoing concern for those already in the business.
I have to disclose right at the beginning, I commercial fish part of the year but this story wasn’t originally going to involve me personally. I was just going to be the usual, detached narrator. I was confident that when I was working on my boat, I was covered by the comprehensive insurance my wife and I get through her state job. In the course of researching this story, I found out I was wrong. But I’ll get back to that later.
First, here’s a full-time fisherman Lance Watkins, who works in multiple fisheries:
“So when I listen to the news these days, they’re all about getting small businesses going again. We want small businesses to thrive and go and go small business. I know I’m a very small business as an owner of my small fishing business but I know other owners of their very small businesses and their business decisions are extremely restricted because they have to worry about the high cost of health care.”
Watkins is a slim, healthy, 36-year old who is married with two young children. He says his family used to pay for a temporary policy, hoping his wife could find a job with benefits. When she became pregnant with their second child, he says they were unable to qualify for a regular policy because insurance companies considered pregnancy a preexisting condition. They ultimately ended up getting insurance for the kids through the state-run Denali Kid-Care program.
Watkins was denied private insurance for himself because he’s a dive fisherman. He eventually qualified for major-medical coverage through the Alaska Comprehensive Health Insurance Association. That state organization sells insurance to Alaskans who can’t get it anywhere else. But it’s limited and like other insurance, it’s not cheap:
“The way I figure it is it’s a ten thousand dollar deductible and a five thousand dollar premium for me. I’m paying 15 thousand dollars a year before I get any type of benefit from the health insurance. But I realize that health insurance is there in case something extremely catastrophic happens and that’s why you pay it. So, I don’t go to the hospital or go to the clinic. I take care of myself and if something catastrophic happens, that’s what the insurance is there for. So, I’m playing the game.”
Watkins is playing it safer than many fishermen, who choose to forgo insurance altogether. According to a 2009 study by a health-care-reform advocacy group called the Small Business Majority, 32 percent of Alaska fishermen were not covered. 75% said they preferred having the choice of a private or public health insurance plan.
For Watkins, the problem is systemic:
“I wish universal health care could work because I’d rather pay a little bit more in taxes and not have to fight insurance companies for my medical claims.”
The Obama Administration’s Affordable Care Act of 2010 did not include a public, or government-funded option, as many had hoped. However, starting in January it will prohibit insurance companies from denying coverage for preexisting conditions. That’s an idea 84 percent of Alaska fishermen agreed with, according to the Small Business Majority poll. The new federal law will also help subsidize the cost of private insurance, depending on income.
But the rates are expected to continue increasing.
“There’s one direction that rates for individuals and families keep going who are not included in a group and that’s up, up, up, every single year.”
That’s Petersburg –Wrangell insurance owner Sue Erickson.
“What we’ve seen as the rates have changed year after year is families and individual fishermen opting for higher deductibles as a way to offset the monthly premium, but it gets to the point where you need to be pretty sick before the health insurance carrier’s going to kick in.”
Even Erickson wonders how long she’ll be able to insure her half-dozen employees. She says it’s critical to provide those benefits, but the cost is ridiculous for a small-group plan like hers. Erickson’s husband is a fisherman who is covered under her policy. She says it would be less expensive for him to get an individual policy but she doesn’t want him to risk changing insurance because of a preexisting back condition.
He’s like plenty of fishermen who depend on coverage from another job or their spouse’s group insurance. I fall into that later category. I’m covered under my wife’s insurance with the Alaska State Employees Association Health Benefits Trust
Erickson suggested I make sure I’m actually covered while I’m fishing.
“Anyone, It wouldn’t be just fishermen, there are some policies that exclude work-related injuries for a self-employed person,” she said.
So my wife and I called the Trust and were told that in fact our plan does not cover work injuries. Sure enough, page 73 of our benefits booklet says in no uncertain terms that the plan does not cover “charges in connection with an occupational injury or illness.” I had already planned on buying insurance for my crew and now I’ll need to buy additional coverage for myself if I want to play it safe.
United Fishermen of Alaska conducted a 2007 survey that found fishermen’s options for both health care delivery and insurance were limited. Access is a particular problem for the many fishermen in more rural communities without a nearby hospital. According to the survey, Alaska’s relatively small pool of potential customers and high health care costs discouraged carriers from offering individual or small business insurance packages here.
“I think it’s a barrier to growing Alaska’s small business base through the commercial fishing industry,” said UFA Executive director Julianne Curry, who knows the situation first hand, “After I graduated from college and I was kicked off my parents’ insurance plan I paid for my own insurance and it was extremely, extremely expensive . Because I was self-employed and I worked in the fishing industry it was really one of my only options. I always did it because I knew I was probably better off but if it came down to me being able to make a boat payment or me having health insurance, I’d have to make that difficult choice and I know There’s a lot of people in the fishing industry who have to make the choice between being able to afford health care or being able to afford their boat payment and their gear payment and their house payment.”
Fishermen hurt on the job can apply for aid through the Alaska Fisherman’s fund. Velma Thomas is administrator for the fund, which exists partly because fishermen in Alaska are not covered under workers compensation law:
“So there’s a kind of that paradigm. How does a commercial fisherman get coverage? We’re not an insurance company but we’re an emergency medical fund to assist with medical bills after other private insurance that maybe available to the fisherman.”
For instance, injured deckhands can seek medical benefits through their skipper’s crew insurance, if they have any. By law, the Fisherman’s fund can only pay up to 10 thousand dollars per claim. Applicants can ask the program’s advisory council for more, but there’s no guarantee.
In the 2012 fiscal year, Thomas says there were 670 claims and the fund paid out around 866 thousand dollars in benefits. Over the last few years, only about 11 percent of applicants had health insurance.
A landmark tree in Fairbanks is gone. The 75-foot-tall white spruce that stood in front of the Creamer’s Field Migratory Waterfowl Refuge farm house was cut down Monday. The tree was dying from stress cracks and a beetle infestation and needed to come down. But, it won’t be forgotten.
Monday night’s Anchorage planning commission meeting drew a healthy crowd. About half the people in the gallery were there to speak to an issue that has drawn organized opposition from residents of Chugiak . Commissioner Terry Parks put the item on the table.
“Madame chair, i make a motion on case 2013 068 that we approve the Eklutna master plan for the planned community district. “
Eklutna, Inc. has two permit applications before the planning commission. The first, a called a master plan, would allow Eklutna to develop 68 acres of land the corporation owns within the municipality. The second, for a conditional use permit, would allow Eklutna to use 17 acres of the land as a landfill for inert debris collected from demolished buildings.
Shortly before the meeting, Eklutna’s representative, the engineering firm Dowl HKM of Anchorage, requested the commission postpone discussion on the conditional use request, to allow Dowl additional time to gather hydrological data at the landfill site. But debate on the master plan stayed on the agenda. Parks did not like that idea
”The master plan was put forward, because the landfill is something they wanted to do. And I don’t think that’s exactly what’s been presented here tonight and the way we have looked at it. I will not be supporting my motion. I think that this is a real convoluted approach to a bigger problem, which is the conditional use for the landfill. “
Parks, along with five other commissioners, balked at even considering the master plan, because he said, there is no clear definition of what Eklutna plans to do with the total acreage, with the exception of the landfill area. Commissioner Stacey Dean agreed
“There’s some real issues as to how this has been presented to us and to the public. And to have it as two separate cases, to have one pulled and one kept in place, is not necessarily fair to the process. I almost feel like it is a .. shell game. “
As did Commissioner Jon Spring
”If they are going to go ahead and do all those additional studies, maybe it make more sense for them to proceed with an application for a landfill permit through ADEC, so that we can then review all the information that might be pertinent to this landfill instead of just a scattering of studies that the petitioner thinks are appropriate. “
And commissioner Tyler Robinson
”I also struggle with the need, and I don’t feel that the need (for a landfill ) has been that well defined. “
In the end, the commission voted not to approve the master plan, but for one vote in favor. The conditional use permit for the landfill is contingent on the master plan approval. That’s okay with Maria Rentz, who led Chugiak homeowners’ opposition to the landfill.
”I have to say that six months ago, we didn’t have a chance. It was actually much, much better than I expected. The commissioners voted six to one to oppose the rezone application, which would have included the monofil. I have no doubt that Dowl and Eklutna will be appealing (the decision) to the Anchorage Assembly.”
Rentz calls the decision a step in the right direction
The application for the conditional use permit for the landfill was postponed until such time as the petitioner receives a landfill permit from the state. Dowl’s representative refused comment on the issue at meetings end.
The Anchorage Assembly continued hearing testimony on two proposals about when to hold a vote whether a controversial labor ordinance should be overturned.
More than 30 people turned out to testify on the issue. Most were in favor of putting the issue on the ballot sooner rather than later. Union member Jason Alward was one of them.
“Kicking the can down the road as elected officials of our community in this case would be disgraceful. Please support an election on this matter in April of 2014.”
That’s when the next municipal election is scheduled. The alternative proposal schedules a vote after April elections but no later than April 2015. Whether the issue will appear on the ballot at all awaits an Alaska Supreme Court decision, which labor officials say the court has agreed to expedite. The labor ordinance passed last March, but was suspended in September after unions gathered more than 22-thousand signatures. The labor law takes away municipal workers right to strike and restricts collective bargaining rights. In a surprise move at the close of the hearing, Assembly member Dick Traini introduced an a new ordinance that would repeal the controversial labor law in it’s entirety and reinstate the original law. The assembly postponed voting on the on the proposals but could do so at their next regular meeting October 22nd.
There are certain rules of decorum you need to follow if you’re going to go to an assembly meeting. You need to sign up if you want to speak. You need to keep your comments short. And you need to put away all sporting gear, as Anchorage Assembly Chair Ernie Hall reminded the audience Tuesday night.
“I’m going to ask that all the individuals that brought tennis racquets this evening during the break to please have those removed.”
The place looked like a tennis training camp because the assembly was deciding whether to use state funding to build a new indoor tennis facility. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports that $10.5-million earmark has become a lightning rod because the city didn’t ask for it and many lawmakers thought the money was being used for other purposes.
If there is one thing everyone at the meeting could agree on, it’s this:
“Tennis is an incredible game that builds character.”
“It is a fun game.”
“Tennis is my favorite sport.”
Tennis keeps people active, it cuts down on obesity, and there are lots of benefits to having tennis courts that can be used year round by anyone, no matter what their income level. Dislike of tennis is not why the Anchorage Assembly is considering rejecting a state grant to build indoor courts near the Dempsey-Anderson Ice Arena. Instead, it’s a question of process, says Assembly Member Bill Starr.
“It wasn’t transparent enough, and it also wasn’t assembly directed.”
Every legislative session, cities across Alaska put together their wish lists for capital projects. The Anchorage Assembly didn’t have anything about indoor tennis courts in their request. The ask was instead made by Mayor Dan Sullivan, by the Alaska Tennis Association, and by the community council in the area.
Starr’s other problem with the funding is this: If you look at the state capital budget, the money was put in with a line that reads “Project 80s Deferred and Critical Maintenance.” Most of that funding is going toward repairs to older city buildings, like the skating rink. Starr thinks that legislators got hoodwinked when they approved a project that went beyond renovations.
“I also believe that some of the folks in Juneau — that’s what they thought they were approving. And so when you see that it’s diverging into a brand new $10.5 million standalone facility, that’s a challenge point for me.”
Mayor Sullivan doesn’t think it should be. He says rejecting the money on the basis of process would be punitive to the tennis players and community members who want the project to go ahead.
“It’s a minor point. It’s a technicality. And it’s kind of irrelevant, quite frankly, because the bottom line is the legislature intended for the Tennis Association to get money for a facility.”
So, who’s right? Did the legislature want the money to go toward tennis courts or not? I e-mailed all 60 legislators to see if they knew where the money was going when they voted on the capital budget. Of the 23 who got back to me before deadline, one said he was aware there was money for tennis courts in the budget, but he didn’t know the assembly wasn’t on board. A couple said they didn’t know about the tennis courts, but that they trusted the legislature’s finance committees to vet projects for worthiness. The rest said they simply had no idea it was in there.
Because capital budgets are expected to shrink over the next few years with a major tax cut on oil and declining production, the appropriation elicited harsh words from some. Sen. Lesil McGuire, an Anchorage Republican who is running against Mayor Sullivan in the Lieutenant Governor’s race, takes special issue with the funding.
“[Sullivan] came to me and asked if I would put it in and I said no! The whole Senate said no. So then he went to the house and got one member to agree to use a re-appropriation that was meant for much needed project 80s work in order to reclassify this,” wrote McGuire in an e-mail. ”Essentially – the whole thing stinks”
But the members of the public who came out for the assembly meeting said the project should go through anyway. Nearly 50 people testified, and almost all of them were tennis players who said that Anchorage would benefit from having a public tennis facility that people could use year round without having to take on an expensive gym membership.
“The trouble is we live in a northern, rainy climate, and between the rain and our winter climate all those thousands of kids who are in the tennis programs don’t have any place to play in the winter,” testified Bill Bittner, a member of the U.S. Tennis Association and the Anchorage Park Foundation. Because they are no public indoor courts in Alaska, many made the point that low- and even middle-income players are shut out of the sport for most of the year. That could limit young players to compete and become higher-level athletes.
Robert Brewster one of the few opposed to the project. He owns the Alaska Club, a chain of fitness centers that offers the only indoor courts in Anchorage.
“This is not really a referendum on whether tennis is important or tennis is good for the community,” said Brewster. “The question is whether this particular facility is necessary.”
Brewster has offered to sell one of his facilities to the City of Anchorage. In his testimony, he argued that there is not enough demand to build new courts, and that as it is, the Alaska Club’s courts are in use just a fraction of the time that they’re open.
“There doesn’t seem to be any reason that there’s going to be a sudden flood of additional people playing tennis,” said Brewster. An audience member interrupted him to say that the low tennis participation was due to the Alaska Club’s high prices.
In the end, the Anchorage decided to put the issue on hold. They unanimously approved a measure allowing the city to accept $26.5 million in Project 80s money for upgrades to older buildings, but set aside the $10.5 million meant for the tennis courts. They’ll reconsider their position on the tennis courts at their October 22 meeting.
Daysha Eaton contributed reporting to this story.
Almost half of the adult women in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough have experienced some form of sexual violence at least once during their lifetime. That’s the sad news to come out of a recent survey conducted by the UAA Justice Center and the Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault.
Andre Rosay is director of the UAA Justice Center. He says Alaska Victimization Survey interviewers contacted close to 12 hundred women by phone for the survey earlier this year. The results did not surprise him
“Even though we found that more than half of adult women had experienced violence, we know that the estimates are conservative, and unfortunately, they are consistent with what we’ve seen in other surveys. I would like to say that I was shocked, but at this point, I’ve learned to accept that this survey reveals very, very high rates of violence. “
He says about one third.. 27.9 percent.. of adult women in the Mat Su have experienced threats of violence at some point in their life. In the past year, more than 2000 adult women in the Mat Su have experienced intimate partner violence : getting slapped, burned or hit with a fist or heavy object. The survey also covered sexually violent incidents performed by others than intimate partners. Almost a third of Mat Su adult women had suffered a forcible sexual assault at some point in their lifetime. During the past year, more than two women a day in the Mat Su experienced forcible sexual assault.
And Rosay says, what researchers know now, is that survey numbers are probably just the tip of the iceberg. The probability is that homeless women and women in shelters … who were excluded from the survey… have likely had multiple sexual assault experiences. Rosay says the survey results target the total number of women who have had experiences, not the total number of experiences. He says the survey numbers are not linked to the population growth of Mat Su
“The survey only looked at how many women had experienced violence, it did not try to delve deeper into why that violence had occurred.”
The Council on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault is a state council within the department of public safety established in the 1980s to fund shelters, rape crisis centers and other programs and to coordinate state response to these types of issues.
Lauree Morton, executive director of the CDVSA , says the survey is part of a national effort developed by the Centers For Disease Control and Prevention in 2009.
“Our goal is to make sure that if a community wants the information, we can get it, and make it available to them. And for the state, we hope it’s going to be a way to measure effective strategies and public awareness campaigns that we have instituted since the governor’s “Choose Respect” initiative. “
Doctor Rosay says the half- hour phone survey covered what he described as “very graphic” questions. He said survey interviewers knew how to determine if the subject of the interview was in danger or not:
“The interviewers are very highly trained, and they are able to detect when an interview should be stopped. So, by the time we ask those very sensitive questions, they have established a very good relationship with the interviewee, and they are able to determine if this is a safe time to proceed with the interview, or whether we should stop it or reschedule it if necessary. “
The goal of the survey Rosay says, is to establish a solid base line for the Mat Su Borough. He says the Justice Center is hoping to see the Borough examine the results and assess its efforts at intervention and prevention ofsexual violence.
Morton says some programs are already in place to educate girls about sexual violence. The Fourth R is a high school curriculum for high school boys and girls to learn about healthy relationships
“There’s a running program for girls age 8 to 13, called Girls on the Run, that will be coming to Mat Su this year. And that pairs young girls with adult women and physical exercise, and also, information about how to make good choices, how to be assertive, how to know what you want and ask for that. “
Surveys conducted in other parts of Alaska had similarly high numbers. Rosay says there was some hope that researchers would find some regions with a lower rate of sexual violence, but that was not the case. So far, ten surveys around the state have been published. Two more, for Ketchikan and the Kenai Peninsula Borough, are to be made available soon.
The Alaska Supreme Court was in Barrow last week to hear a climate change lawsuit on the Barrow high school stage. Chief Justice Dana Fabe says it’s important for students to learn how their legal system works. The Chief Justice feels strongly that diversity on the bench helps communities have faith in the decisions judges make. In her chambers at the Boney courthouse in downtown Anchorage she spoke highly of her predecessor Jay Rabinowitz who believed all Alaskans should have equal access to the judicial system.
The owner of the Niblack mining project on Prince of Wales Island continues to explore the possibility of a minerals processing plant on Gravina Island near Ketchikan.
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority and Heatherdale Resources, LTD on Tuesday announced a memorandum of understanding for evaluation of a mill and tailings facility at the Gravina Island Industrial Complex.
AIDEA is a state-owned corporation set up to advance economic development in Alaska. Spokesman Karsten Rodvik says the agreement will help it investigate financing options in support of the Niblack project.
“Part of the feasibility that they are doing, of course, is to determine whether or not they would be able to process materials in-state or if they would have to process them out-of-state,” Rodvik said. “That’s where we come in. We look at the Gravina Island Industrial Complex site as a potential site for Niblack to process the materials.”
Financing could be key for moving the project beyond the exploration phase and into permitting. Niblack Project Manager Graham Neale told an audience at the recent annual meeting of Southeast Conference that Heatherdale has had trouble attracting enough investors.
“As an exploration company we are at the whim of the financial markets and the only way we can raise money is by investor dollars,” Neale said. “And for whatever reason over the last couple years, I’m sure people’s portfolios have noticed, that investment dollars have kind of dried up and they are just getting harder to come by. So, in 2013 unfortunately we couldn’t raise the capital that we needed to pull off a program.”
The Canadian company has long expressed interest in the Gravina Island site for a minerals processing plant. Last year, it agreed to a memorandum of understanding with the Ketchikan Gateway Borough, which owns the industrial complex land.
If developed, it’s estimated Niblack would create up to 230 full time jobs at both the mine site and the processing plant.
Heatherdale is the sole owner of the copper, gold, zinc and silver prospect located about 30 miles southwest of Ketchikan. Geologists say Niblack’s mineral deposits are similar to the Greens Creek Mine near Juneau.
Southeast Alaska’s maritime economy provides more than a quarter of the wages paid in the region. That’s according to a new study published by the Southeast Conference.
Frank Foti, president and CEO of Vigor Industrial, says the Ketchikan Shipyard is “Alaska’s newest and best ship-building facility.”
He’s biased, since his Portland-headquartered company owns Alaska Ship and Drydock. He elabarated during a speech celebrating last spring’s opening of a new ship-construction hall.
“After the collapse of the timber economy here, these leaders saw an opportunity for growth and jobs and economic prosperity, while others saw only derelict infrastructure and a dying industry,” he said. (Watch a time-lapse video of the hall’s construction.)
A new study shows the shipyard is a key contributor to the region, with about 120 employees and $37 million in annual revenues. It’s part of Southeast’s maritime or “blue” economy. (Click here to read the report.)
“So who are we. What sets us apart from other places and makes our resources unique. Is there one thing that defines our people, geography and economy?” asked Meilani Schijvens, who researched that question as part of Juneau-based Sheinberg Associates.
She spoke at last month’s Southeast Conference annual meeting in Sitka, where the study was released.
“We are here today to tell you that there is. We are a maritime economy and a maritime region,” she said.
That’s no surprise, given Southeast’s geography.
But the study has the details to prove it. The report shows about 400 maritime businesses and government agencies employing more than 8,000 people. Their total annual wages come close to half a billion dollars, with individual wages averaging about $50,000 a year.
Researcher Barb Sheinberg says this is the first thorough study of the blue economy. It includes commercial fisheries, ferries and marinas.
“When you think of the visitor industry, that includes whale-watching cruise staff. When you think about construction that’s our marine welders. When you think about government, that’s our Coast Guard folks,” she said.
Not included were on-shore businesses relying on cruise ship passenger traffic or barged goods.
She says ocean harvests dominate the maritime economy.
“That’s our seafood processors and commercial fishermen, the mariculture workers, that’s where half of the maritime jobs and wages are,” she said.
Sheinberg says the blue economy is larger than mining, timber, construction or any other sector in Southeast.
Schijvens says shipbuilding and repair jobs have doubled over the past five years.
“This growth is not accidental, but resulted from strategic planning and targeted investment,” she said.
Like Ketchikan, Wrangell is a former logging town that’s found new opportunities.
State and federal grants, as well as private investments, have paid for seafood plant improvements, a marine service center, a travel lift and a new harbor.
Economic Development Director Carol Rushmore says that’s brought unexpected benefits.
“Now we have transient moorage space. So now we’re seeing yachts coming to Wrangell, because before, we never had that ability,” she said. “Commercial fleets were being rafted 3 or 4 deep. Well, the yachts don’t want to tie up to the commercial boats. But now we’re seeing this huge increase of yachters coming to Wrangell. It’s added an extra element to our tourism industry.”
She says growth hasn’t been easy. Grants take years. Community planning can be contentious. And it’s natural for people to become impatient.
“Recovery is very slow, as you are all are very painfully aware of. It has taken 20 years for our community to start rebounding,” she said.
Wrangell isn’t all the way there. It still hopes to see development at the sites of its old mill and a former Bureau of Indian Affairs school.
Rushmore says that could include expansion of the city’s blue economy.
A pair of Canadian sculptors selected to build a piece for downtown Fairbanks visited the community last week to preview officials and the public about the project. Their work is designed to represent and reflect the local environment.
A plan to build indoor tennis courts was put on hold at the regular Anchorage Assembly meeting Tuesday night. The body voted unanimously to accept a 26.5 million dollar bundle of legislative funding for improvements to several city-run buildings, but postponed their vote on whether to accept 10.5 million dollars for the construction of a new city-run Recreation Center. The center would hold six tennis courts and two half-basketball courts. Tennis organizations and Mayor Dan Sullivan support the plan. But some Assembly members are critical of accepting the money because they did not request it. Assembly members said they wanted more time to gather information. Around 50 people testified on the issue. The majority supported building the courts. The issue will be before the Assembly again on October 22nd. Dozens of people who showed up to testify on measures related to a controversial labor law passed last Spring ran out of time to testify at 11pm and the meeting will be continued Wednesday at 6pm.
Public feedback at a town hall meeting Tuesday at East High School in Anchorage regarding the proposed Northern Access route to the U-Med District was almost entirely against the new road.
“I am very disturbed by this project, and I’m also very disturbed by the process that we have gone through to get this $20 million for this,” Helen Nienhueser, a resident of the area since 1969, said. ”It was a backroom deal that happened in the closing moments of the legislature with all the local representatives opposing it, but not given anything other than token, ‘we will listen to the public.’”
Her sentiment was echoed by nearly all of the 40 citizens who spoke on the issue.
The “backroom deal” she references is a $20 million allocation from the state that was added to the budget in the closing days of this past session.
State Senator Bill Wielechowski says despite arguments against the funds voiced by the U-Med area’s representatives, community councils and constituents, the money remained in the final budget.
“It really is, I think, a slap in the face to the local community to completely disregard the will and desire of the community,” Wielechowski said.
Though most attendees of the town hall meeting were opposed to the road, many agreed that it may be in the district’s best interest have a plan for if the road does eventually go through.
“If we have to have a road, how we build it, how we make it so it doesn’t disrupt the neighborhoods surrounding the U-Med District as well as the qualities that bring people,” Kelly Smith said when asked what he was there to speak about Tuesday evening.
No representatives from the State Department of Transportation or DOWL H-K-M were present at the meeting to respond to questions.
The company contracted with the state to manage Alaska’s new online medical records data base is defending its privacy protections. The Alaska E-health Network, like many across the country, resulted from state and federal mandates designed to improve efficiency and privacy of health information transfer. It was piloted in Fairbanks, and went live this summer statewide. Alaskans are required to opt out of the system if they don’t want their medical records in the data base. The American Civil Liberties Union is critical of that, and has also raised concerns about access by hackers and government agencies.
In November, voters in the small city of SeaTac will decide whether to set one of the highest minimum wages in the country.
The controversial Proposition One would raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour for some workers, including ground crew at the airport. Alaska Airlines is fighting the measure.
Traditionally, when workers want better wages, they join a union. So why are airport workers taking this approach instead?
They don’t have a lot of choices – they’re stuck in a legal limbo under federal labor law.
Alaska Native tribal governments are keeping their doors open, but worry about how long the federal government shutdown will go on.
“So now the shutdown, we won’t even get our payment till lord knows when,” Richard Peterson, tribal administrator for the organized village of Kasaan in Southeast Alaska, said.
He says the Bureau of Indian Affairs had to recalculate payments to tribes to comply with across-the-board budget cuts, or sequestration, then was shut down. That’s put the BIA 10 months behind in payments to support his tribe’s operations.
He’s worried about how much longer it can continue normal operations.
“Right now I don’t know. I’m not even comfortable trying to answer that until we really sit down and take a hard look at where we’re at,” Peterson said, when asked if the shutdown might lead to tribal employee layoffs. “Depending on how long this goes on, and deciding whether we want to look at financing options or what have you. I just know it puts us in a serious bind.”
The BIA provides funding to tribes for a wide range of programs – including disaster relief, roads, and tribal courts.
Gloria O’Neill is president and CEO of Cook Inlet Tribal Council in Southcentral Alaska. She says CITC’s general assistance program is underfunded and normally runs out of money half way into the fiscal year, but she says the infusion that normally comes with the start of the new fiscal year on October first is missing.
“Because of our preparation, we are continuing with service as usual throughout the organization, however, we have a couple of limited service interruptions, one being general assistance,” she said. “That program is funded by the BIA and we’ve not received our funding for general assistance this year.”
O’Neill says CITC is routing people eligible for General Assistance to other aid programs. She says education funding is also affected by the shutdown.
“We have funding on hand and so we really try to be careful to ensure we can meet those obligations and get those scholarships out the door, because our kids are in school and they need to see, they need to see that money,” she said.
O’Neill says funding to tribes should not be treated as discretionary.
“We should be more of a program like defense or some of the others that really take into account that this is an actual need,” she said. “It’s not something that if we have the money, we’ll fund it, but this is literally a need in our communities and it is based upon treaty obligations.”
Tribes also rely on funding from other federal agencies in the U.S. Department of Interior, and in the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Education, Justice, and Agriculture.
The main groups working to help Alaskans sign up for marketplace insurance plans haven’t successfully enrolled anyone. One week after after the launch of the federally run health insurance marketplace, it’s still not operational.
It’s 8 a.m. and Joshua Weinstein is doing something that has become a familiar routine over the last week. He’s trying to sign on to Alaska’s health insurance marketplace:
“So obviously start at Healthcare.gov and you can start an application or you can log in. I have made a consumer account. I got that far. This is looking optimistic…”
Weinstein is a benefits consultant at Enroll Alaska, the company that’s deploying insurance agents around the state to sign people up for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act. He has attempted to log onto the marketplace at least a dozen times over the last week. In that time, he’s successfully created an account, but hasn’t gotten much farther. And on this morning, his optimism quickly fades as he lands on a screen that is mostly blank except for a small blue person icon near the top:
“I’ll click the person’s head and see what happens.”
That click doesn’t go anywhere. And Weinstein says that’s why he isn’t walking actual clients through the process just yet:
“So this is not a very confidence boosting experience and for me or any one of our agents to be sitting across from someone at a health care facility or a retail location doing this sort of clicking around, it would be nonsensical.”
In the meantime, Weinstein is helping clients choose an insurance plan and figure out what subsidies they may qualify for. But actually enrolling in a plan will have to wait until the federal website is functioning. Enroll Alaska says it has a backlog of 1200 Alaskans who are ready to sign up for insurance. Weinstein says he didn’t expect the first week to be perfectly smooth, but it has been discouraging:
“We have people who are on salary, we have expenses and we have no way to at this point help people get enrolled and make this a successful business model.”
Enroll Alaska intends to have two dozen insurance agents in communities across the state. But the company is waiting to deploy most of those agents until the website is working. Tyann Boling is COO of Enroll Alaska. She says the high initial demand for coverage in Alaska is encouraging. But she worries that if the marketplace isn’t working soon, that enthusiasm will drop off:
“And we really don’t want that to happen. We’re hoping that by the end of this week, we’re hoping that by tomorrow it’s going to be going, it’s all determined on when the federal government can get it functioning.”
The federal government doesn’t have an estimate for when that will be. Susan Johnson is regional director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She can’t say if anyone from Alaska has successfully enrolled. She says technical problems are affecting all of the federally run marketplaces, in 36 states:
“We’re making improvements every day but we’re not where we want it to be yet. We’re adding both hardware and software improvements and we know it’s frustrating, we’re working as hard as we can to get to where we all need it to be.”
Johnson says there is no hurry to sign up for insurance. She’s asking for patience. And at least one Alaskan who is eager to buy new insurance is okay with that. Alex Cruver is a 28 year old who has asthma. He already has health insurance, but he expects to save money on the marketplace. He has logged onto healthcare.gov three times over the last week. He hasn’t even been able to create a user account, which has left him a bit perplexed, but not too concerned:
“I guess I thought it would be fixed by now.” Reporter: “So how frustrated are you?” Cruver: “Not that frustrated, I mean it’s kind of a bummer, but not very frustrated.”
Cruver says the website problems won’t deter him at all. He’s content to wait, as long as he’s eventually able to sign up for a plan that starts January 1st.
This story is part of a reporting partnership between APRN, NPR and Kaiser Health News.
It’s been one week since the federal government shut down.
The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development expects a rise in federal workers filing for unemployment payments due to the furlough.
The labor department started receiving calls from furloughed federal workers the first day of the shutdown. They had these types of questions:
“Am I eligible for unemployment insurance? How much can I get?”
Virginia Calloway is acting chief of unemployment insurance for the state.
“This is a very uncertain time about what’s going on with the federal funds and I know it’s making people anxious and we’re here to try to help,” Calloway said.
Depending on how long the furlough lasts and if individual claims meet eligibility, the state would pay furloughed federal workers from the unemployment insurance fund, then bill the federal government for reimbursement after the quarter ends Dec. 31.
If federal workers receive unemployment benefits, then are paid retroactively for the time they were furloughed, Calloway says it’s unclear if they would have to repay those benefits.
“That’s a question that is up in the air but unfortunately we can’t ask the federal government because they’re closed,” she said.
“Our position would be to pay them as long as they’re eligible at the time,” Lennon Weller, who’s currently in charge of managing Alaska’s unemployment insurance trust fund. “Later on if the situation becomes that they end up getting retroactively paid for those weeks, then that’s not for us to determine at this point. I think our biggest worry is to obviously put money in people’s pockets in the immediate time frame if they’re currently obviously not working or not able to work and aren’t receiving a paycheck.”
Weller says he doesn’t know how many federal workers have filed for unemployment insurance since the government shut down, but he expects it will be higher than normal.
“It’s looking like the latest tallies that are coming which of course would be just activity that’s happened in the last day or two does seem to be indicating a significant bump in demand at least for the federal workforce or ex-federal workforce,” she said.
Weller says the maximum weekly unemployment payment is $370.00, not including dependents. If the furlough continues, the earliest payment for a federal worker who filed last week would be Oct. 15.
For the past five years, the housing authority has received federal funds for an elder service coordinator on Prince of Wales Island. This year, two new communities will be included in the program, which helps seniors access things like health care, financial information, events and activities.
“Programs like gardening, language classes, storytelling, or cultural events,” Ricardo Worl, the housing authority’s chief executive officer, said.
He says additional grant money will be used to hire coordinators in Yakutat and Saxman, where Tlingit and Haida recently opened new senior centers.
“A lot of our tenants in these senior housing facilities have spent their entire lives in that community, and they want to remain there. Their family lives there, their grandchildren live there,” Worl said.
The housing authority contracts with Catholic Community Service to run the program. Marianne Mills is director of Southeast Senior Services for CCS, which operates similar programs in Juneau and the entire region.
“The main thing is to keep them active, healthy, and connected with other people,” Mills said. “Not just staying in their place by themselves.”
Mills says the elder service coordinators in Yakutat and Saxman will tailor programs and activities to the needs of their community. She says the program on Prince of Wales has benefited from partnerships with other agencies.
“For example, with the SEARHC clinic, they did a sit and be fit class, got some exercise equipment in the senior apartments there, and arranged for doctor and physical therapy visits on a regular basis,” she said. “Just made a variety of different health promotion activities available.”
Tlingit and Haida this year received a total of $246,000 for elder service coordinators from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The money is part of HUD’s Resident Opportunities and Self Sufficiencygrant program. Despite the federal shutdown and sequestration budget cuts, Worl says he’s fairly confident the money will continue to be available.
“If they don’t have programs that allow our elders to age in place, in the rural communities, it’s going to be even more expensive to bring them to our urban centers, where it’s a lot more competitive,” Worl said. “The wait lists to get into these senior housing and health care programs are tremendous.”
He says the housing authority will just need to remain diligent in communicating to Alaska’s Congressional delegation the importance of such programs.
Energy and the challenges of providing it in remote Western Alaska was the main topic of a summit in Bethel on Monday.
Tribal leaders from dozens of villages throughout the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta attended the gathering put on by the Association of Village Council Presidents.
It’s fall now in the Y-K Delta with temperatures bouncing around the freezing mark. But winter is coming. And the elders say it could be a cold one.
Toksook Bay elder Paul John told the audience that traditional Yup’ik teachings include information on how to survive in the harsh environment.
John McIntyre with AVCP has heard elders say that the Earth is busy insulating itself and preparing for the cold weather that’s ahead.
“In some of those villages I’ve heard of grass growing up to five feet tall,” McIntyre said. “And the leaves, you know this summer when I look at the trees, the leaves were even bigger.”
“With those kind of indications, we need to start now to look at our energy needs.”
McIntyre works with the TANF program – or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. He says this past spring, cold weather lasted through May and families were running out of heating fuel. One family had 11 people sharing a single small home.
“And they didn’t have fuel oil for two months,” he said.
AVCP only learned of the family’s struggles after visiting the village and running into one of the elders who was staying at the house. In this particular case, one of the children in the home qualified for services and the whole household benefited from the heating assistance.
McIntyre implored the tribal leaders to share that kind of information with AVCP.
“You know who needs help,” he said. “Once you know who needs help, let us know, because we can provide these kinds of services to our people that are not making it.”
AVCP’s Energy Summit precedes the Association’s Annual Convention which happens this week in Bethel.