Alaska News

Search Crews Find Missing Nunapitchuk Man Deceased

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-02-20 11:14

Search and rescue crews have found the body of Wassillie Berlin. Searchers found him deceased on the trail between Atmautluak and Bethel. The Nunapitchuk man was reported missing by his brother on Saturday. Crews had found his snowmachine earlier.

Trooper spokesperson Megan Peters says an autopsy hasn’t been done and Berlin will be transported to Anchorage. Next of kin have been notified.

She says the indication is that his snowmachine ran out of gas about 5 miles outside of Atmauthluak. He attempted to walk the rest of the way. He was found between the two communities.

A trooper dispatch says that while the investigation is currently ongoing, there is no foul play suspected.

Categories: Alaska News

Bush Pilots Hit Hard By New Interpretation Of Tax Law

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

Alaska air taxi operators say the IRS has re-interpreted tax law for their industry, hitting some Bush pilots with tax bills of up to a million dollars. Alaska’s federal lawmakers are asking the revenue office to back off until they get some answers about what the rules are. The unexpected burden is driving some air carriers into debt or out of business entirely.

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At issue are excise taxes, those sums you see on an airline ticket receipt, just before the total. On an airliner, the passenger usually pays a tax of 7.5% of the price, plus $4 per flight, and the airline passes it along to the IRS.

Sitka Air service operator Scott Harris thought his Cessna 185 and de Havilland Beaver flights were exempt, because the tax has an exception for small aircraft. But there’s a catch, an exception to the exception. IRS publications say flights in small aircraft are taxable if they’re on an established route, which the IRS defines as a route operated “with some degree of regularity.”

Understanding, or misunderstanding, that term has cost Harris a pile of cash.

“‘Some degree of regularity.’ This is an IRS term that means places you go to frequently, apparently,” he says.

In the summer, Harris is busy, and he does fly repeatedly to a number of destinations – a few communities, certain lodges, favorite spots for sports fishermen. He says he never imagined the excise tax applied to flights like that. He says he spoke to IRS personnel about it years ago and no one told him otherwise. Then, in 2011, he got audited. The IRS found he went to a few destinations with “some degree of regularity” over three years and hit him with a $250,000 bill. Harris says he’s read the regulations and he’s still astounded by the IRS interpretation.

“For us there’s probably two paragraphs that cost me a quarter of a million dollars,” he says. “And they’re so vague! I don’t know how anybody could read these and say, ‘Yep, you’re going to a lodge in Southeast Alaska, you gotta be taxed.’”

He considered appealing, but the IRS said that would open him up to greater scrutiny.

“So the unveiled threat to me was, ‘Yeah, sure appeal. Go ahead. And when we come back to check it again we’re going to look at everything your float planes do, everywhere they go, how often they go there and we’re going to go back seven years.’ So imagine the dollar value in that. It’s insurmountable.”

Soon, he says, IRS enforcement officers were calling, asking for a list of his assets. Harris says that was it for him. He took out a loan and paid the full $250,000.

“We do government work here. We do lots of things. I can’t afford to have my name out there in public as a tax evader, with a tax bill and being levied, so there was no negotiating,” he says,

The IRS responded to questions for this story by emailing links to publications on its website. Alaska’s U.S. senators and Congressman Don Young have written joint letters to the IRS for two years. They say they’ve heard of IRS agents bullying air carriers while refusing them clear
guidance.

In 2012, the IRS did write a memo addressing a few scenarios Bush pilots face, and it draws some interesting distinctions. It says carriers don’t need to collect the tax for sightseeing on a small plane, even if they land for, say, bear-viewing. If the passengers deplane and board a boat to view bears, that’s still not taxable. But if they deplane to fish, the IRS says that’s a taxable flight. At least, it is the way many flight services sell it, by letting customers choose among several locales and offering to go every day. That constitutes “some degree of regularity,” according to the IRS.

Jane Dale of the Alaska Air Carriers Association says even after the 2012 memo, the regulations are too murky for her organization to give much guidance to its members. At one point, half of the audited carriers she knew of had been forced to sell or shut their doors. Dale’s group is urging
the IRS to take a softer approach.

“We would encourage education over audits,” Dale says. “It would likely take less manpower by the agency, and with clear regulations, certainly groups like the Alaska air Carriers association would help education and put that information out.”

Jack Barber, of Alaska Air Taxi on Lake Hood in Anchorage, says his IRS audit eight years ago hit like a thief in the night. He didn’t have the $240,000 the service said he owed. He filed for bankruptcy protection. Last he looked, the bill had climbed to over $800,000. Barber says the battle has cost him his financial security and, he says, his marriage.

“It’s about destroyed my life,” he says.

He says he still isn’t sure when to collect the tax but he’s changed his business. He took down all the brochures that list his flight-seeing rates, lest those be seen as a schedule. And he tries not to fly anywhere with any degree of regularity. The term itself aggravates him.

“It’s an overreach on the IRS’s part. You know, if a comet comes flying by earth once a year, you might think that’s some degree of regularity,” he grumbles.

In a letter to Alaska’s federal lawmakers in December, the acting IRS commissioner said the matter is under review, and he pledged to have results soon.

Categories: Alaska News

Ketchikan Assembly Nixes Draft Letter To Gov. Parnell

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly members had a spirited discussion Tuesday night over a letter that had been submitted by two Assembly members as a suggested response to Gov. Sean Parnell’s comments in the community last week.

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During his visit to Ketchikan, Governor Parnell said the borough’s lawsuit against the state over education funding could have repercussions for the community, specifically related to state funding for local projects. Some people interpreted that as a threat, but Parnell later told The Associated Press that he didn’t intend his comments to be taken that way, and he would not punish Ketchikan for its lawsuit.

Despite his clarification, the proposed letter of response, drafted by Assembly Members Agnes Moran and Glen Thompson, strongly questioned Parnell’s statements, and claimed that his comments diminished the borough’s trust in the state.

The letter was submitted as an agenda item, which made the draft public before the full Assembly could vote on it.

That was a major point of discussion when the Assembly did meet to talk the issue over.

Assembly Member Alan Bailey said, “I believe it is nothing less than crass, and truly an embarrassment.”

Bailey, who has not supported moving forward with the lawsuit, went on to say that the letter, and how it was submitted, did not serve the best interest of the community. He questioned the adversarial approach, and said the governor and the state need to know that the letter does not represent the opinion of the Assembly as a whole.

“Therefore, I am recommending an amended motion to condemn the tone and content of this draft letter, and to censure the writers of this document responsible for what I believe are actions which are not in the best interest of the community,” he said.

Assembly Member Moran was absent from the meeting, but Thompson was there. He defended the letter, and the method used to propose it. He said the only way to submit such a letter is publicly, because otherwise it would violate the Open Meetings Act. Thompson added that he tried to withdraw the item later, because members of the public told him it was too strongly worded, not because he changed his mind.

“I still stand behind what was said in that letter,” he said. “I think the governor abused his power as the chief executive when he threatened retaliation against citizens exercising their constitutional rights to challenge a statute in court. I think it was an egregious abuse of power that rises to the level of tyranny, and I will not go quietly into the night and I will not grovel before my government.”

Thompson said he never expected the letter to pass an Assembly vote, he just wanted to put it out there for discussion.

Other Assembly members noted that in the past, official responses from the Assembly went through a different process, where the manager asks during a meeting whether the Assembly wants to respond, and then is given direction.

Mayor Dave Kiffer said, “The writers of this letter knew that the minute they put it in the agenda, whether that’s our procedure or not, it would be out there. It wouldn’t have to pass; it wouldn’t have to get any support. It was out there. You could have gone and said, ‘Look, we want to respond to the governor. What do you all think?’”

Kiffer noted, though, that censuring Moran and Thompson seemed too strong of a response, as well. Bailey agreed to remove that part of his amendment, and it eventually passed 4-2, with Thompson and Assembly Member Mike Painter voting no.

Assembly Member Bill Rotecki proposed a second amendment directing the mayor to write a letter to Governor Parnell, clarifying that the draft letter in the agenda item did not reflect the opinion of the Assembly. That passed 5-1 with Thompson voting no.

After that long discussion, the Assembly talked about the annual Legislative Liaison Fly-In, and whether to cancel it. There was concern that the lawsuit issue would taint all discussions with legislators. But the Assembly eventually agreed to maintain the fly-in, and limit participation and discussion to only items that were approved during last fall’s community capital project process.

You can listen to last week’s interview with Gov. Sean Parnell here.

Categories: Alaska News

YK Delta Teen Smoking Rate Well Above National Average

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

A Mayo Clinic study of teen smoking rates in the Yukon Kuskokwim delta region found young people there use tobacco at high rates. Nearly 30 percent of 11 to 14 year olds and 63 percent of high school students use tobacco, compared to less than 20 percent of teens nationally. Dr. Christi Patten is the lead author of the YK Delta study. She says focus groups with kids in the region helped them design the intervention program for the youth, but the results were not good.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Senate Opposes Creation Of Beringia International Park

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

The Alaska Senate has unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Beringia International Park – an idea agreed upon in 1991 by then-Presidents Bush and Gorbachev.

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Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Childcare Workers See Higher Wages

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:45

Juneau childcare workers are getting paid more and staying in their jobs longer than they were just a few years ago. That’s according to an organization that runs a pilot program designed to improve access to childcare in the Capital City.

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Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Supreme Court Decides Pipeline Worth Billions, Not Millions

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:15

Photo courtesy of the Department of Natural Resources.

The State Supreme Court reaffirmed on Wednesday that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is worth $10 billion.

Oil companies had argued that the pipeline should only be assessed at $850 million, and they based that number on the tariffs collected. At that lower value, the property taxes they pay to cities like Fairbanks and Valdez would be dramatically reduced.

The Supreme Court found that tariff income isn’t the only value derived from the pipeline. Its worth also comes from its ability to transport the billions of barrels of oil from the North Slope.

While the decision only concerns the 2006 assessment, oil companies have made similar arguments over the pipeline’s for other tax years.

Categories: Alaska News

Murkowski Continues To Push For King Cove Road

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:01

Murkowski addresses the Alaska State Legislature on Wednesday, February 19, 2014. (Skip Gray/360North)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has promised to continue fighting for a road connecting King Cove to Cold Bay.

In her annual address before the State Legislature on Wednesday, Murkowski described the Interior Department’s decision to block the project as “heartless and wrong.” She says it’s an extreme case of federal overreach.

“Now the King Cove decision is more than a road,” said Murkowski. “I think we all recognize, it is more than a road. It is emblematic as to how the federal government believes that it has to somehow protect Alaska from Alaskans.”

The 10-mile gravel road would run through the Izembek National Wildlife Refuge, and it’s long been a source of contention between the federal government and Alaska supporters of the project. King Cove residents say having a connection to a nearby airport is a matter of public safety, while the Interior Department and environmental groups believe the road would damage bird habitat and set a bad precedent for refuges.

Murkowski has made construction of the road a major priority for her office. She’s repeatedly called for the Interior Department to agree to a land swap that would allow the project to go through. And last year, she escorted Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to King Cove to show her how difficult it is to medevac people from the remote community.

Murkowski got applause from state lawmakers when she said she plans to keep the pressure on.

“I have been told to get past this issue. Let’s just get past this issue. Let me tell you: That is not going happen,” said Murkowski. “In addition to my role as mediator, and ambassador, and all that, I can also be a hell-raiser. And I am going to be a hell-raiser on this. I am going to channel my inner Ted Stevens, and we are going to get this road.”

After her address to the Legislature, Murkowski told reporters that she’s thinking about putting holds on future nominations by President Barack Obama until the road issue is addressed.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: February 19, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 18:00

Individual news stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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Court Reaffirms Trans-Alaska Pipeline Value

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The State Supreme Court reaffirmed that the Trans-Alaska Pipeline is worth $10 billion.

Oil companies had argued that the pipeline should only be assessed at $850 million, and they based that number on the tariffs collected. At that lower value, the property taxes they pay to cities like Fairbanks and Valdez would be dramatically reduced.

The Supreme Court found that tariff income isn’t the only value derived from the pipeline. Its worth also comes from its ability to transport the billions of barrels of oil from the North Slope.

While the decision only concerns the 2006 assessment, oil companies have made similar arguments over the pipeline for other tax years.

Bush Pilots Hit Hard After New Interpretation Of Tax Law

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Alaska air taxi operators say the IRS has re-interpreted tax law for their industry, hitting some Bush pilots with tax bills of up to a million dollars. Alaska’s federal lawmakers are asking the revenue office to back off until they get some answers about what the rules are. The unexpected burden is driving some air carriers into debt or out of business entirely.

Murkowski Continues To Push For King Cove Road

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has promised to continue fighting for a road connecting King Cove to Cold Bay.

Ketchikan Assembly Nixes Draft Letter To Gov. Parnell

Leila Kheiry, KRBD – Ketchikan

Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly members had a spirited discussion Tuesday night over a letter that had been submitted by two Assembly members as a suggested response to Gov. Sean Parnell’s comments in the community last week.

YK Delta Teen Smoking Rate Well Above National Average

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

A Mayo Clinic study of teen smoking rates in the Yukon Kuskokwim delta region found young people there use tobacco at high rates. Nearly 30 percent of 11 to 14 year olds and 63 percent of high school students use tobacco, compared to less than 20 percent of teens nationally. Dr. Christi Patten is the lead author of the YK Delta study. She says focus groups with kids in the region helped them design the intervention program for the youth, but the results were not good.

Alaska Senate Opposes Creation Of Beringia International Park

Mike Mason, KDLG – Dillingham

The Alaska Senate has unanimously passed a resolution opposing the Beringia International Park – an idea agreed upon in 1991 by then-Presidents Bush and Gorbachev.

Juneau Childcare Workers See Higher Wages

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Juneau childcare workers are getting paid more and staying in their jobs longer than they were just a few years ago. That’s according to an organization that runs a pilot program designed to improve access to childcare in the Capital City.

Categories: Alaska News

Air Taxi Services Say IRS Overreach is Crushing

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 17:52

Alaska air taxi operators say the IRS has re-interpreted tax law for their industry, hitting some Bush pilots with tax bills of up to a million dollars. Alaska’s federal lawmakers are asking the revenue office to back off until they get some answers about what the rules are. In the meantime, the unexpected burden is driving some air carriers into debt, or out of business entirely.

At issue are excise taxes, those sums you see on an airline ticket receipt, just before the total. On an airliner, the passenger usually pays a tax of 7.5% of the price, plus $4 per flight, and the airline passes it along to the IRS.

Sitka Air service operator Scott Harris thought his Cessna 185 and de Havilland Beaver flights were exempt, because the tax has an exception for small aircraft. But there’s a catch, an exception to the exception. IRS publications say flights in small aircraft ARE taxable if they’re on an established route, which the IRS defines as a route operated “with some degree of regularity.”  Understanding, or misunderstanding, that term has cost Harris a pile of cash.

“’Some degree of regularity.’ This is an IRS term that means places you go to frequently, apparently,” he says.

In the summer, Harris is busy, and he does fly repeatedly to a number of destinations – a few communities, certain lodges, favorite spots for sports fishermen. He says he never imagined the excise tax applied to flights like that. He says he spoke to IRS personnel about it years ago and no one told him otherwise. Then, in 2011, he got audited. The IRS found he went to a few destinations with “some degree of regularity” over three years and hit him with a $250,000 bill. Harris says he’s read the regulations and he’s still astounded by the IRS interpretation.

“For us there’s probably two paragraphs that cost me a quarter of a million dollars,” he says. “And they’re so vague! I don’t know how anybody could read these and say, ‘Yep, you’re going to a lodge in Southeast Alaska, you gotta be taxed.’”

He considered appealing, but the IRS said that would open him up to greater scrutiny.

“So the unveiled threat to me was, ‘Yeah, sure appeal. Go ahead. And when we come back to check it again we’re going to look at everything your float planes do, everywhere they go, how often they go there and we’re going to go back seven years.’ So imagine the dollar value in that. It’s insurmountable.”

Soon, he says, IRS enforcement officers were calling, asking for a list of his assets. Harris says that was it for him. He took out a loan and paid the full $250,000.

“We do government work here. We do lots of things. I can’t afford to have my name out there in public as a tax evader, with a tax bill and being levied, so there was no negotiating,” he says,

The IRS responded to questions for this story by emailing links to publications on its website. Alaska’s U.S. senators and Congressman Don Young have written joint letters to the IRS for two years. They say they’ve heard of IRS agents bullying air carriers while refusing them clear guidance.

In 2012, the IRS did write a memo addressing a few scenarios Bush pilots face, and it draws some interesting distinctions. It says carriers don’t need to collect the tax for sightseeing on a small plane, even if they land for, say, bear-viewing. If the passengers deplane and board a boat to view bears, that’s still not taxable. But if they deplane to fish, the IRS says that’s a taxable flight. At least, it is the way many flight services sell it, by letting customers choose among several locales and offering to go every day. That constitutes “some degree of regularity,” according to the IRS.

Jane Dale of the Alaska Air Carriers Association says even after the 2012 memo, the regulations are too murky for her organization to give much guidance to its members. At one point, half of the audited carriers she knew of had been forced to sell or shut their doors. Dale’s group is urging the IRS to take a softer approach.

“We would encourage education over audits, Dale says. “It would likely take less manpower by the agency, and with clear regulations, certainly groups like the Alaska air Carriers association would help education and put that information out.”

Jack Barber, of Alaska Air Taxi on Lake Hood in Anchorage, says his IRS audit eight years ago hit like a thief in the night. He didn’t have the $240,000 the service said he owed. He filed for bankruptcy protection. Last he looked, the bill had climbed to over $800,000 dollars. Barber says the battle has cost him his financial security and, he says, his marriage.

“It’s about destroyed my life,” he says.

He says he still isn’t sure when to collect the tax but he’s changed his business. He took down all the brochures that list his flight-seeing rates, lest those be seen as a schedule. And he tries not to fly anywhere with any degree of regularity. The term itself aggravates him.

“It’s an overreach on the IRS’s part. You know, if a comet comes flying by earth once a year, you might think that’s some degree of regularity,” he grumbles.

In a letter to Alaska’s federal lawmakers in December, the acting IRS commissioner said the matter is under review, and he pledged to have results soon.

Categories: Alaska News

Bill Would Standardize Grievance Process For Mental Health Patients

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 17:39

A bill that would standardize the grievance process for mental health patients is moving through the State Legislature.

Rep. Pete Higgins, a Republican from Fairbanks, is sponsoring the bill. He says that mental health patients do not currently have a guarantee that providers will adequately address their complaints.

“Our corrections people have more rights than our mental health patients do. And that’s not correct,” says Higgins.
“That’s not right.”

The bill reforms the way grievances are handled in a number of ways. It would set up a 24-hour crisis line for patients and establish an administrative appeal process. Mental health facilities would be required to employ patient advocates and to use the same type of complaint forms. The bill also establishes that patients who have been treated in a locked facility for more than three days have a right to see family and friends.

Higgins says that while many treatment facilities believe their individual grievance policies are sufficient, his office is a aware of cases where medical facilities have been neglectful of complaints. A 2011 report from the Disability Law Center describes two patients at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute who were allegedly restrained inappropriately and filed grievances about the incidents. Neither complaint was addressed on schedule, and both grievance responses were missing information.

“My argument is we’ve already seen the fault of that,” says Higgins. “We’ve already seen where people have fallen through the cracks.”

The bill is currently being heard in the House Health and Social Services Committee. It has seen bipartisan support, with Democrats and Republicans signing on as co-sponsors.

Categories: Alaska News

Home Depot’s Hiring Initiative Doesn’t Mean Much To Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 11:33

The Home Depot is touting a nationwide initiative seeking 80,000 “new hires” this spring and summer, including 270 in Alaska — but that’s nothing new.

The home improvement retailer is looking to hire 45 seasonal employees in Juneau, 45 in Fairbanks, and 180 in Anchorage.

Juneau’s Home Depot is looking to hire 45 seasonal employees for the spring. Photo by Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau.

State research economist Alyssa Shanks with the Department of Labor says these numbers won’t account for a boost in employment numbers.

“When we look at it on an annual basis and we compare it to the rest of our employment numbers, we probably won’t see too much of an impact, just because relative to employment in those areas, it’s a fairly small number of jobs,” Shanks says.

In 2012, employment in the retail sector in Alaska increased by about 2,000 jobs in the spring and summer months compared to the rest of the year. Home Depot’s 270 seasonal hires account for roughly 14 percent of that increase.

From an employee’s perspective, Shanks says this is still good news.

“Those are a handful of jobs at least in Juneau and in Fairbanks and in Anchorage, compared to the size, that could help a lot of people if they don’t have a job right now and are looking for additional work, so despite the fact that it’s seasonal and, relatively speaking, it’s not a lot of jobs, it could really be helpful to some people,” Shanks says.

Juneau Home Depot store manager Tom Hart says a seasonal job from May to September could turn into a year-round position.

“The best associates that are certainly passionate about customer service, we’re going to try to keep them on board and transition into full-time associates.”

Hart says the store hopes to hire locally. Positions at Juneau’s Home Depot include cashier, freight and customer service associates.

Categories: Alaska News

Dry Well Forces Buccaneer to Abandon West Eagle #1

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-02-19 11:28

Buccaneer Energy has experienced another setback in its oil and gas exploration efforts in Alaska.

After spending millions of dollars to begin an onshore project east of Homer, the company is pulling up stakes and abandoning its only well at the site.

It wasn’t long ago that officials with Australia-based Buccaneer Energy were very excited about the company’s prospects at West Eagle. Speaking to investors in a video uploaded to YouTube in November. Buccaneer CEO Curtis Burton said that the geology of the West Eagle very promising, as were the results of 2-D seismic testing conducted at the site.

“We have both oil and gas targets at West Eagle,” Burton said at the time. “If it’s typical to the other structures like it that have been drilled on the peninsula, it will be hydrocarbon-bearing.”

After weeks of drilling, however, Buccaneer officials admitted Monday that the West Eagle prospect has fallen short of their expectations.

In a news release, officials said that after drilling to a level of 3,700 feet, the company did not find the hydrocarbon reserves that had been hoped for. As a result, Buccaneer is calling it quits at West Eagle #1. It will be plugging and abandoning the only well it dug there.

The disappointing results come after Buccaneer spent more than $9.4 million to mobilize at West Eagle. Those costs include more than $1.8 million to improve sections of East End Road and build a camp at the drilling site, plus $3.4 million to prepare and move the Glacier drilling rig from Kenai to Homer.

Buccaneer says the State of Alaska will be on the hook for more than half of that total, thanks to the return of bond funds and expected payment of tax credits through ACES.

In his quarterly report, Burton said Buccaneer has so far recovered $30.5 million from the state through ACES, with another $24.5 million co-invested on its Endeavor jack-up rig through the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority.

Burton applauds the tax incentives and investment Buccaneer has received from the State of Alaska but at the same time, says the state’s regulatory agencies have sometimes acted as a hindrance to the company’s plans.

“Those guys can inadvertently … and sometimes overtly cost you time and money in going out and executing a program,” he said. “The state has …. been slow to rule and in other cases, ruled against what we were doing in ways that cost us time and money.”

Officials with Buccaneer Energy did not return telephone calls in time for this story but in Monday’s news release, Burton said the company would now focus its attention on its onshore leases at Tyonek Deep and its onshore operation at Kenai Loop.

Kenai Loop has been one of the company’s few success stories in Alaska but even that project has come under a shadow. Court hearings are scheduled for later this week to settle ownership disputes about the wells between Buccaneer, Cook Inlet Region, Incorporated and the Alaska Mental Health Trust.

In a statement, the Buccaneer board of directors said the failure at West Eagle would force it to seek out additional working capital, which could include the sale of existing assets, in order to make a scheduled payment to the Chicago investment firm Meridian Capital by June 30.

Categories: Alaska News

Delta Western, Employees Clash Over Unionizing

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-02-18 18:49

Photo by Pipa Escalante, KUCB – Unalaska.

A labor dispute is brewing between a regional fuel distributor and its staff in Unalaska. Employees of Delta Western say the company doesn’t want them to unionize.

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Delta Western has about 16 employees in Unalaska to fill up commercial vessels and sell home heating fuel.

Early Sunday morning, about half of those workers walked off the job and onto a picket line with members of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

“Delta Western unfair, Delta Western unfair,” protesters chanted.

Leo Dacio is a dock driver for Delta Western. He’s been with them for about five years.

He and his co-workers want to join the union. But Dacio alleges that the company has been trying to discourage them.

“Yeah, we have a 401k [retirement savings plan] but they say that the 401k company that they have won’t be dealing with us if we’re union,” Dacio said. “So they’re threatening to stop that.”

Dacio also alleged that for months, they’ve been harassed by their supervisor. During a recent snowstorm.

“He had me shovel down at the dock where I could use an equipment,” Dacio said. “But he told me to use manual labor.”

The International Longshore and Warehouse Union sent an organizer to Unalaska last week.

Jon Brier helped put together the walkout. And he says the union also filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on the workers’ behalf.

“It’s called an unfair labor practice,” Brier said. “It’s discrimination against these folks for exercising their rights to be union.”

In the complaint, the union alleges that Delta Western threatened at least two pro-union workers with disciplinary action and had their work assignments changed.

Brier says that all seven employees who walked out on Sunday morning were to back to work by the end of the day.

On Monday, the workers delivered a letter to Delta Western asking the company to recognize them as union members.

Brier says the company has not yet responded to that letter.

Delta Western’s site manager in Unalaska declined to comment. Representatives from Delta Western’s parent company, North Star Petroleum, weren’t available on Tuesday.

This isn’t the first time Delta Western’s employees in Unalaska have tried to unionize. In 2007, they considered joining the Teamsters and then the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

The movement to join the ILWU went to a vote. But according to National Labor Relations Board records, the measure failed to get support from a majority of workers.

Categories: Alaska News

Tok Residents Trying to Revive Biomass-Fueled Power Plant Project To Cut Energy Costs

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-02-18 18:49

Business and community leaders in Tok are trying to revive a plan to cut the area’s high energy costs by generating electricity with biomass.

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A year ago, Tok was on track to become the first community in Alaska to generate its electricity using biomass. Officials with Alaska Power and Telephone had proposed to harvest scrappy timber like black spruce from nearby state forest land, process it and use that biomass it to generate electricity at less cost than the diesel fuel it now uses.

AP&T spokesman Dave Stancliff says the Tok area is economically distressed and desperately needs cheaper power than the 51 cents-per-kilowatt-hour that businesses are paying now.

“Our little grocery story – y’know, it’s just tiny – it pays $37,000 a month in power bills,” Stancliff said.

The residential rate is 31 cents per kilowatt hour, which goes up to 51 cents after 500 kilowatt hours.

“It’s not unusual for a resident on a high-use winter month here in Tok to have a $500 or $600 power bill,” he said.

Stancliff says high energy costs combined with other factors are plunging the area into “an economic death spiral.”

That’s what motivated AP&T a couple of years ago to propose building a biomass-fueled powerplant that would initially generate 2-megawatts of electricity – enough for about 800 customers. The company asked the state Division of Forestry for a timber-sales contract so they could harvest trees for powerplant fuel. Forestry came up with a 25-year timber-sales contract, and let it out for competitive bid in April. But, says Stancliff, AP&T officials decided against bidding on it, because the contract terms made it hard for the company to get reasonable financing.

“There’s some language and there are some specifics within that contract that – you couldn’t take it to a bank or a financial institution and secure a loan,” he said.

After the contract failed to attract any bids, Forestry shelved the biomass project, until a few weeks ago. Stancliff says that’s when Tok business and community leaders regrouped and came up with a new plan that would enable them to attract financing. But he says they’re having a hard time convincing Forestry to agree to a contract that will help them accomplish that.

Stancliff says much of the standard-boilerplate language of their contracts shouldn’t apply to Tok’s proposal, because it’s based on harvesting timber of little commercial value. He says the timber should instead be considered a hazard, because it’s helped fuel several huge wildfires over the past couple of decades that’ve cost the state some $85 million to put out.

“Y’know,” he said, “one has to wonder, if this is hazardous fuel – and it is, it’s been identified as such; no one questions it – why people are having to pay anything. The state should actually see it as a benefit, in terms of fire mitigation (and) public safety.”

Forestry officials say it’s not that simple. Mike Curran is a senior agency official appointed to head up a biomass team to come up with ways to promote use of the resource. Curran says they’re trying to accommodate Tok’s proposal and may be able to give help by allowing more time and waiving or reducing some bonds and deposits.

“I think they may be a few things we can modify,” he said.

Curran says Forestry is not, however, able to give them all the breaks they’re asking for. He says that’s because the contract must comply with state law and regulations that among other things require the agency to represent the state’s interest in getting a fair return on the sale of state resources.

“This is a contract,” he said. “And it’s a competitive-bid sale, so when they sign the contract, there are contract stipulations, like there is in any contract, that have to be followed.”

Curran says Forestry is being cautious because it’s never dealt with biomass as a resource, so the agency is learning as it goes along in the process.

“It very much is a learn as we go, because this was the first of its kind within the state – the first potential project and contract,” he said.

Curran says if the Tok group agrees with the new contract he’s working on, it’s possible the agency will let it out for bid in early April.

Stancliff says he and the other biomass project backers will wait and see what Forestry can come up with.

Categories: Alaska News

Fairbanks Assembly Votes To Participate In Education Suit

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-02-18 18:49

The Fairbanks North Star Borough will participate in a school funding lawsuit filed by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough against the state of Alaska. The suit challenges the constitutionality of the state requiring organized municipalities to help cover the cost of local schools.

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Categories: Alaska News

Save Our Schools Rallying Cry Heard On Capitol Steps

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-02-18 18:48

Holding signs saying “Kids! Not Cuts” and “Vouchers Hurt Public Schools,” about 200 people packed the Alaska Capitol steps for a “Save our Schools” rally yesterday afternoon.

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The crowd included parents, students, teachers and community members, as well as a handful of state lawmakers.

Juneau Douglas High School Senior Tori Talley talked about growing up in a low income, single parent home, before being adopted in the sixth grade. Through it all, she said, school was one of the few places she felt safe. She said teachers bought her school supplies, and school meal programs and counseling services kept her on track to graduate later this year.

“All the teachers knew exactly what my situation was,” Talley said. “And they always would stop me in the middle of class and they’d sit with me and talk to me if I needed it. And they were still there for me. So I’ve always had an extremely supportive, caring and motivational support group.”
Talley drew loud cheers when she said she plans to go to college to study psychology.

Other speakers argued for an increase in state spending on education, and against a proposed amendment to Alaska’s constitution that would allow public funds to be spent on private and religious schools.

The amendment needs two-thirds support from the Alaska Legislature before it can appear on the ballot. Governor Sean Parnell and Republican lawmakers are pushing legislation that would put the issue to voters.

With two months left in the legislative session, Anchorage Senator Berta Gardner, a Democrat, said opponents feel confident the amendment won’t make it through.

“We believe that they don’t have the votes to move that forward,” said Gardner to loud cheers. But, she continued: “They haven’t started knocking heads together, twisting arms, making threats, all kinds of things, and we have to keep the pressure up. We’re ahead of the game. The public is absolutely with us. And we will not back down.”
Amendment supporters say it’s needed to provide parents and students more school choice.

Anchorage Democratic Rep. Harriet Drummond and the Great Alaska Schools coalition organized the rally.

Due to a lengthy floor session, many House members missed the event. Nearly all of the state senators in attendance were Democrats. The only Republican there was Soldotna Senator Peter Micciche, who’s considered a key vote on the proposed constitutional amendment.

Categories: Alaska News

Supporters Cheer Alaska Native Language Bill

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-02-18 18:48

The Barnes Committee Room at the Alaska Capitol erupted in cheers this morning, as a panel of lawmakers unanimously moved a bill that would make 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages.

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University of Alaska Southeast Native Languages Professor Lance Twitchell greeted the House Community and Regional Affairs Committee in Tlingit.

While English is the only official language of Alaska, Twitchell said this is not an English-only state.

“For over 10,000 years there have been other languages here, and they are still here today,” Twitchell said.

He described a crisis point in the effort to save Native languages. The average Alaska Native tongue has fewer than 1,000 speakers, the vast majority of whom are over the age of 70. The last fluent speakers of Eyak and Holikachuk Athabascan died within past decade.

Twitchell said language loss is tied to a history of repression and discrimination against Alaska Natives.

“I see dying languages and escalating suicide rates, and think, how can those things not be connected? I see the end result of cultural genocide, and think, how can we just decide to accept this?” he said. “There is no magic solution for language loss. But there is the promise of unity and recognizing that solutions exist.”

He said House Bill 216 is one of those solutions.

“I sit here as your peer. I sit here as your equal. We may speak different languages, but mine is just as valuable, just as necessary, and just as useful as yours,” said Twitchell.

Bethel elder Esther Green taught Yup’ik in the Lower Kuskokwim School District before she retired. Green said learning a language is a form of cultural preservation.

“Language and culture go together and they cannot be separated,” she testified.

Savoonga High School students Beverly Toolie and Chelsea Miklahook introduced themselves in Siberian Yup’ik. The language is no longer taught in their school, but the girls said they learned to speak it from their grandparents.

Nome Democrat Neal Foster asked if they would be interested in taking Native language classes.

“If the classes were to be reintroduced into the school, are those classes that you would want to take?” Foster asked.

“Yes,” the girls responded in unison.

Barrow Democrat Ben Nageak is the only member of the legislature who’s a fluent speaker of a Native language, Inupiaq. Fittingly, he made the motion to move HB 216 to the next committee.

Prime sponsor, Sitka Democrat Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, said he was moved by the support for the bill.

“This is a bill that very much felt as though it’s of the people, belongs to the people who testified today, and belongs to people across Alaska who believe in the cultural importance of Native languages,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.

Nobody testified against the legislation. Its next stop is the House State Affairs Committee.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska New Nightly: February 18, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-02-18 18:35

Individual news stories are posted on the APRN news page. You can subscribe to APRN’s newsfeeds via emailpodcast and RSS. Follow us on Facebook at alaskapublic.org and on Twitter @aprn.

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Employers Struggle With Ballooning Cost Of Workers’ Comp Medical Bills

Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage

Employers in Alaska pay the highest workers compensation premiums in the country. And most of that cost goes toward medical claims. The Alaska State Chamber of Commerce has for several years, made reforming the system one of its legislative priorities. And this year, at least one state lawmaker is working on legislation to help control workers compensation costs.

Delta Western, Employees Clash Over Unionizing

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska

A labor dispute is brewing between a regional fuel distributor and its staff in Unalaska. Employees of Delta Western say the company doesn’t want them to unionize.

Fairbanks Assembly Votes To Participate In Education Suit

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

The Fairbanks North Star Borough will participate in a school funding lawsuit filed by the Ketchikan Gateway Borough against the state of Alaska. The suit challenges the constitutionality of the state requiring organized municipalities to help cover the cost of local schools.

Democrats Use Driver’s License Bill As Vehicle For Gay Rights Fight

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

A bill that would save military spouses the trouble of going to the DMV has triggered an unlikely battle over gay rights in the state legislature.

APOC Reviewing Tosi Complaint

Daysha Eaton, KSKA – Anchorage

A complaint was filed on Tuesday with the Alaska Public Offices Commission against Anchorage Assembly candidate Mao Tosi. The complaint alleges Tosi’s campaign for an East Anchorage Assembly seat violates Alaska’s campaign laws on 15 counts.

Tok Residents Trying to Revive Biomass-Fueled Power Plant Project To Cut Energy Costs

Tim Ellis, KUAC – Fairbanks

Business and community leaders in Tok are trying to revive a plan to cut the area’s high energy costs by generating electricity with biomass.

Save Our Schools Rallying Cry Heard On Capitol Steps

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

Holding signs saying “Kids! Not Cuts” and “Vouchers Hurt Public Schools,” about 200 people packed the Alaska Capitol steps for a “Save our Schools” rally yesterday afternoon.

Supporters Cheer Alaska Native Language Bill

Casey Kelly, KTOO – Juneau

The Barnes Committee Room at the Alaska Capitol erupted in cheers this morning, as a panel of lawmakers unanimously moved a bill that would make 20 Alaska Native languages official state languages.

Categories: Alaska News

Democrats Use Driver’s License Bill As Vehicle For Gay Rights Fight

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-02-18 18:31

A bill that would save military spouses the trouble of going to the DMV has triggered an unlikely battle over gay rights in the state legislature.

When Rep. Doug Isaacson introduced the “Military Spouse Residency Relief Act” he didn’t expect it to be controversial.

“No! I was thinking this would be a yawner – that it would just be one of those things everyone would get behind because it’s a benefit to military,” says Isaacson, a North Pole Republican.

The bill isn’t complicated. Members of the military are already allowed to keep their out-of-state driver’s licenses, so this legislation would extend that perk to their husbands and wives.

What it wouldn’t do is extend it to their domestic partners. Because the bill specifically uses the word “spouses,” same-sex couples aren’t covered by this bill because Alaska doesn’t allow gay marriage. In 1998, Alaska was the first state to define marriage as existing between a man and a woman, and it doesn’t recognize gay marriages conducted in other states.

Without the ability to get married, there’s no way for same-sex couples to avail themselves of the driver’s license benefit. Rep. Max Gruenberg, an Anchorage Democrat, sees that as a violation of another part of the Alaska Constitution – the equal protection clause. He says even if the bill deals with a tiny perk, the language in it is still discriminatory.

“I think it’s important that we not permit this kind – even if it’s a small amount – of unequal treatment to continue,” says Gruenberg.

Gruenberg first offered an amendment to include same-sex partners in the bill during a hearing of the Military and Veterans Affairs Committee last week, and it failed on party lines. On Tuesday, the same amendment was offered in a different committee. And again, it failed, with one Democrat voting for it and five Republicans objecting. If the bill makes it to the House floor, the Democratic minority may offer up the amendment again.

Both times the amendment has been offered, opponents rejected it on fairly technical grounds rather than delve into the policy question. The State Affairs Committee found the amendment inappropriate because adding same-sex partners to the legislation would have required a title change for the bill. The Military and Veterans Affairs Committee shuttled it because the Alaska Supreme Court is expected to weigh in on whether same-sex partners should be included under the umbrella of “spouse” over the next few months. The Court heard Schmidt and Schuh v. Alaska — a case concerning property tax exemptions for married couples — in 2012, and a decision is still pending.

Gruenberg doesn’t think that’s how this bill should be handled. He says the Legislature regularly considers policy that would affect pending litigation. For example, a bill that would make it optional for local governments to fund their school districts was introduced after the Ketchikan Gateway Borough filed a lawsuit on the same subject.

“The Legislature shouldn’t shirk its duty to just wait for a court to decide something, when really it’s a moral issue that’s involved – the question of equal rights,” says Gruenberg.

But Isaacson still thinks the wait-and-see approach is the right one to take with his bill.

“‘Spouse’ is ‘spouse’ however defined, and if the law changes to say that ‘spouse’ means ‘partner,’ then this will still be a benefit to all parties concerned. So that amendment is unnecessary to the intent of the bill.”

The State of Alaska already extends benefits to the same-sex partners of its employees, after a different Supreme Court decision in 2005 determined that offering them only to straight couples violated the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

Categories: Alaska News

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