Alaska News

Eight-Year-Old Busks For A Cause

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 17:12

This isn’t the first time Sophia Nylen has donated her earnings to a cause. Her mother says she’s given money to The Glory Hole. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

One of Juneau’s youngest buskers is raising money this week for a good cause.

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Elementary school student Sophia Nylen can sometimes be seen playing her violin in downtown Juneau with an open violin case to collect money. This week, all proceeds will go to the family that lost their Twin Lakes home to a fire on Friday.

It’s a drizzly Monday afternoon in downtown Juneau. Eight-year-old Sophia Nylen stands in front of the new Heritage Coffee Roasting Company espresso bar on South Franklin Street playing Hunter’s Chorus on the violin.

Like any busker in a city, Sophia gets various reactions from people walking by.

“I like playing for the people because the people enjoy music, and some people don’t like it. They just walk by and go, like, ‘Eh.’ They don’t really care,” she says.

Sophia has been busking since she was 5. She says the money she gets isn’t always for her musical talent.

“When I was little, everyone liked me because I was so adorable,” Sophia says.

She once made $120 in one session.

“They weren’t looking at me playing the violin. They were just looking at me, like, my face.”

Sophia started wanting to play the violin when she was 3.

“I kept asking my mom and she said, ‘Fine. I’ll call the teacher and see,’” Sophia says.

According to Ildi Nylen, Sophia’s mother, the teacher said, “‘You know. She’s quite young. They don’t start this early. But bring her to a group lesson.’”

The plan was for Sophia to see how hard it was to play the violin.

“Well, I took her to the group lesson and by the end of the lesson, she convinced the teacher to start to teach her. She’s quite headstrong, in a good way,” Nylen says.

Sometimes Sophia plays downtown for an hour. Sometimes she plays for 15 minutes.

“Last time she played about 20 minutes, she made $35,” Nylen says.

If you ask Sophia, in the past few summers of playing her violin downtown, she’s earned “maybe a million.” Her mom says it’s more like a couple hundred dollars.

Sophia puts a lot of it in the bank to save for college, and sometimes, she says, she gets to spend some of it.

“I bought this shirt because it’s an Under Armour and I like going hiking a lot so I got it,” she says.

The shirt is black and hot pink. In her hair, she wears a light blue feather.

“I like buying girlie stuff because I’m a fashionista,” Sophia says.

Sophia plays downtown a few times a month during the summer and usually on the weekend. But this week is different.

“On Friday, we were driving by the fire and I saw smoke and we looked behind us and we saw a huge fire. It was, like, flames everywhere,” Sophia says.

The single family home in the Twin Lakes area was destroyed.

“The next day after that, I said to my mom, ‘I want to go play my violin for the people that don’t have their house anymore,’” Sophia says.

Owners Amber and Lucas Schneider have three children.

Sophia plans on playing for an hour each day this week and will give everything she earns to the family.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: July 31, 2014

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 17:10

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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ASRC Gets Option To Buy Into Offshore Chukchi Drilling Operations

Lauren Rosenthal, KUCB – Unalaska & Liz Ruskin, APRN – Anchorage

Arctic Slope Regional Corporation and a handful of North Slope village corporations now have the option to buy into offshore drilling operations in the Chukchi Sea. It’s part of a new agreement with Shell Oil. But with the future of that company’s Arctic operations up in the air, the deal raises more questions than answers.

For more about the agreement between Shell and the North Slope corporations, we have APRN’s Liz Ruskin, who was at the Anchorage press conferences announcing the deal today.

Gold Miners Push Back Against Nome Over ‘Negative Social Impacts’

Zachariah Hughes, KNOM – Nome

A vocal show of frustration from Nome’s mining community took center stage at this week’s City Council meeting. The miners were angry about a letter the city sent to the State Department of Natural Resources complaining about impacts from the recent gold mining boom.

NOAA Investigating Ferry, Humpback Collision

Brianna Gibbs, KMXT – Kodiak

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration law enforcement officials are investigating a collision between the state ferry Kennicott and a humpback whale near Kodiak. The incident brought a multi-agency team of scientists to the island to help determine whether the collision caused the death of the sub-adult humpback whale.

Higher Wildfire Potential Could Impact Northeastern Alaska Caribou Herds

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

Rural Communities in northeastern Alaska could be left without caribou in the future.  That’s according to a recent study. Scientists believe climate change could increase wildfire potential in lichen-rich boreal forest where the Central Arctic and Porcupine caribou herds forage in the winter.  A decline in habitat could mean less opportunity for area subsistence hunters.

GCI Completes Purchase of 3 Southeast TV Stations

Rachel Waldholz, KCAW – Sitka

GCI has completed its purchase of three television stations in Sitka, Juneau and Ketchikan. The deal means the telecom giant now owns almost every commercial TV station in Southeast Alaska.

No Plans Yet For Commercial Kuskokwim Opening

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

For the second consecutive week, it’s “wait and see” for fishermen who are eager or anxious for the next commercial opening on Kuskokwim River.

Aniak Youths Rescue Bald Eagle

Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel

An Aniak woman came across an injured bald eagle earlier this week. With help from her community in remote Southwest Alaska, she gave the bird a second chance and brought it to the care of veterinary experts.

Eight-Year-Old Busks For A Cause

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

One of the capital city’s youngest buskers is raising money this week for a good cause.

Elementary school student Sophia Nylen can sometimes be seen playing her violin in downtown Juneau with an open violin case to collect money. This week, all proceeds will go to a Juneau family that lost their home to a fire on Friday.

Categories: Alaska News

Judge Dismisses State’s Lawsuit Over National Wildlife Refuge Closures

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 16:30

A federal judge has dismissed the state’s lawsuit over the closure of national wildlife refuges during the partial federal government shutdown last year.

U.S. District Court Judge Sharon Gleason called case moot.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service restricted access to refuges nationwide during the 16-day shutdown last October. The state sued as Congress was poised to pass legislation to end the shutdown.

The lawsuit was later amended to add the Alaska Professional Hunters Association as plaintiffs.

The lawsuit claimed the closure violated provisions of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, and asked Gleason to block future closures that don’t comply with the law.

Gleason said the feds’ response to a future shutdown may be different.

A Department of Law spokeswoman said the state was evaluating a possible appeal.

Categories: Alaska News

Borough Could Be First To Allow Lifetime Auto Registration

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 10:55

According to Bill Stoltze, who’s currently running for a state Senate seat, the state Department of Motor Vehicles takes in millions of dollars more a year than it spends on motor vehicle services.

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Stoltze sponsored legislation during the past legislative session that would give municipalities the option to allow permanent vehicle registration for residents. That bill passed, and goes into effect January 1of next year. Stoltze says the bill takes money from the DMV and puts it back into people’s pockets.

 Mat Su Borough Assemblyman Jim Colver wants the Borough to be the first government entity to try out lifetime registration.

“It’s a fairness issue, and it makes a lot of sense. The registration was raised in 2002, the state registration, and the state of Alaska is collecting excess revenue above and beyond of what it costs to run the division of motor vehicles, by the tune of about m aybe fifty million dollars.”

 Colver’s proposed ordinance would create the authority for the Borough to implement the new state law.

 This is how it would work. The owner of an automobile at least 8 years old, or of a non- commercial trailer, can elect to pay a 25 dollar tax on top of the standard state two year registration fee at the time of registration renewal. In addition to the state fees, the Borough collects a 70 dollar road tax on vehicles 8 years or older. So paying the 25 dollar permanent registration tax in addition to the 270 dollars in state and Borough fees for one car would free the owner from having to renew registration again for the lifetime of the vehicle. But permanent registration is not transferable if the vehicle is sold.

 Mat Su Assemblyman Matthew Beck says the proposal could help people who own rarely used autos, such as classic cars.

 ”I think of the people with plow trucks around here and they take it on the public roads once every other week, or however often it is snowing to go get gas, and that’s the only time it goes on the public road. A lot of people have trailers for hauling stuff here and there. They haul their trash over to the landfill. They use that once a month.”

 There is a downside, in that the state, and the Borough, would lose some revenue in motor vehicle fees, Colver says.

 ”You renew your licenses bi-annually every two years.  So really the reduction won’t start taking place until about 2017. It’s very gradual.”

 The 70 dollars the Borough collects for each car 8 years or older is distributed to the various road service areas in the Borough. If the ordinance passes, depending on the number of vehicle owners who opt in favor of permanent registration, those road service areas could see fewer dollars – potentially, more than two million dollars.  More than 83 thousand motor vehicles in the Mat Su are eight years old or older, compared with a population of 96 thousand people.

 Colver plans to introduce his ordinance at the upcoming Borough Assembly meeting on August 5. I’m Ellen Lockyer

Categories: Alaska News

Parnell Finalizes Tax Cuts for In-State Refineries

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2014-07-31 10:24

After getting through all of the security clearances and checks, guests were ushered into the fire station at the Tesoro refinery where Governor Parnell put his signature on the dotted line.

Parnell sponsored HB 287, which started out simply enough. It was initially written to extend the contract to sell North Slope royalty oil to the Tesoro refinery in Nikiski. Then some amendments were made that included some tax credits for qualified infrastructure expenditures. That credit could be worth up to $10 million per year for five years, for each refinery. House Speaker Mike Chenault represents the Nikiski area. He says the bill was necessary to keep Alaska refineries open.

Photo by Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

“The royalty issue was the issue that concerned folks in this facility,” says Chenault. “We were able to add a couple pieces that were able to help refineries up north. We were proud to work on it, so you can continue your jobs and continue to support the community that you live in.”

The Tesoro plant in Nikiski and the Petro Star refinery in North Pole are the only two left in the state after Flint Hills closed in May. When that happened, some other last minute changes were made, namely a resolution to provide more subsidies to the remaining refineries, sponsored by Representative Tammie Wilson of North Pole.

“The resolution is really about the Quality Bank, which is a really important part,” says WIlson.

The Quality Bank is the system by which refiners connected to the Trans-Alaska Pipeline are charged for the crude oil they take out of the line and then process into another product. The subsidies in Wilson’s resolution help offset what refineries are charged by the Quality Bank.

“But we know the Quality Bank takes a lot of the profit for them,” says WIlson. “So, what this does is that it just directs the Department of Natural Resources and the Governor and everybody else, to make it a formula that works better for what we have here.”

Rather than actually change the formula, which is up to the Federal Energy Commission, the resolution provides real dollars that make up for the Bank charges. Parnell said before he signed the bill that it leveled the playing field for refineries, and would help spur more investment in them.

“There’s also a royalty provision in here that enhances the ability for producers to sell to refiners as well,” says Parnell. “This bill is just a very important step forward in making sure that we have a more healthy in-state refining industry, lots more jobs for Alaskans, and we provide that level playing field for every company to take advantage of.”

Parnell signed a few other bills while on the Kenai Tuesday. He started off in the morning at the Snow Shoe Gun Club. In front of a soundtrack of target practice at the club, he signed Senate Bill 77. Sponsored by Senator Peter Micciche, that bill lets the state Board of Game create a special hunting season for Alaskans aged 8-17 to take big game.

The other bill that became law Tuesday was Representative Paul Seaton’s House Bill 75. It deals with the Pick. Click. Give. program, that allows people who receive a PFD from the state to donate a portion to a non-profit organization.

“There was one part of the program that said if your budget was more than $250,000 a year, you had to have a certified public accountant audit, which meant that for those groups that were just above that range, they had to spend more to get the audit than they would get in donations,” says Seaton.

Seaton’s bill removed that requirement completely. This year, Alaskans put $2.7 million of their PFD into non-profit coffers, with an average donation of more than $100.

Categories: Alaska News

KSM Mine Wins Environmental Approval From British Columbia Government

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:44

A controversial mine planned for an area northeast of Ketchikan just won environmental approval from the British Columbia government.

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Toronto-based Seabridge Gold was granted what’s called an Environmental Assessment Certificate Wednesday. The corporation is developing the Kerr-Sulphurets-Mitchell prospect, not far from the Southeast Alaska border.

Seabridge still needs similar approval from Canada’s federal government. It got a provisional OK earlier this month. The final public comment period for what’s called the KSM mine ends August 20th.

Provincial approval was granted on the same day the National Council of American Indians released a statement opposing the KSM and similar developments near transboundary rivers. That came in support of efforts by a Southeast tribal coalition critical of a half-dozen projects planned for near the border.

Seabridge Gold still needs to raise much of the $5.3 billion needed to develop what it calls one of the largest copper and gold deposits in the world.

Categories: Alaska News

SEARHC to Receive $53 Million Settlement from Federal Government

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:43

SEARHC serves about 17,000 Alaska Natives and American Indians in Southeast Alaska. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

The Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium will receive a $53 million settlement from Indian Health Service for about fifteen years of unpaid contract costs.

Now SEARHC president and CEO Charles Clement hopes the federal agency will continue to pay its bills.

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The Indian Health Service pays the Southeast Alaska Regional Health Consortium to provide health care services to about 17,000 Alaska Natives and American Indians in Southeast.

But for more than 15 years, IHS failed to reimburse SEARHC for nearly $40 million in contract support costs.

SEARHC CEO and president Charles Clement says contract support covers such things as building insurance, audits, electricity bills and other compliance activities required by IHS.

“We don’t have a choice whether we buy insurance. We have to have an audit every year. We pay an auditor to come in and fully audit everything. And it’s genuinely bizarre that they would say, ‘You have to do this, but we’re not going to compensate you for that,’” Clement says.

The Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act requires such costs be paid in full. When that doesn’t happen, Clement says SEARHC has to use other revenue to pay the bills and that means sacrifices in patient care.

“We hear lots of feedback from patients about access to care and timeliness of care and formularies and we try to resolve them and take them into consideration continuously. But, at the end of the day, when you spend all the money that you have providing these services, there’s only so much that you can do,” Clement says.

SEARHC has an annual operating budget of around $115 million. Clement says almost half comes from IHS, with the rest from a slew of grants and third party payers, like Medicare, Medicaid and insurance companies.

2014 is the first fiscal year in more than 15 years that SEARHC has received full support payments from IHS.

The two entities signed the final settlement agreement July 23. Clement says SEARHC will likely receive the entire payment in the fall. He says the settlement puts an end to any contentious issues between SEARHC and IHS.

“I’m ecstatic. This is a big deal. I mean to have something this big interrupting a relationship that we have with the Indian Health Service. It’s hard to just overlook the fact that you have a deal and someone’s not fulfilling their end of the bargain, because the Indian Health Service is really our partner. And so to have that resolved is a huge relief,” Clement says.

The settlement includes interest and will go into a reserve fund. Clement says SEARHC also will use the one-time payment on deferred building maintenance, information technology and medical equipment.

U.S. Sen. Mark Begich recently introduced a pair of bills requiring the federal government to honor contractual obligations made with tribal organizations. Heather Handyside is Begich’s press secretary.

“His two new bills will ensure that these payments are not just made at the whim of the current senate and house representatives and president but are going to be written into law so that they will not only be approved but also funded, and won’t come out of discretionary funding. So those are all important steps to make sure this doesn’t continue the same cycle that we’ve seen historically,” Handyside says.

SEARHC is one of several tribal organizations across the state that filed claims and reached a settlement with IHS for unpaid contract support. Settlements range from several hundred thousand dollars to more than $150 million.

Categories: Alaska News

Food Bank Seeks Donations After Spike in Users

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:42

The Food Bank of Alaska is asking for donations after seeing a spike in users.

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The bank purchased nearly 40,000 pound of bulk food, but needs more. The bank provides food to more than 100 partners that serve people in Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough and 200 partners across the state.

Last year, agencies served up to 100 people on busy days. This year, they are typically seeing 250 people, including seniors, veterans and families.

Officials say the numbers are up after a food stamp reduction and the end of extended unemployment benefits last year. Plus, more children are at home during the summer, meaning they are not getting meals at school.

There also have been fewer donations to the Food Bank this summer.

Categories: Alaska News

In Tok, Some Grumbling Over Electricity Rate Hikes vs. Energy Sustainability

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:41

Alaska Power Company customers in Tok and elsewhere in the Interior are unhappy that their electricity bills went up earlier this year. Some are frustrated that they’re being charged more partly because they’re conserving electricity – and generating it themselves.

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It used to cost a lot of money to heat Tok School during the coldest months of winter.

This biomass-fueled boiler at Tok School burns chipped timber waste to generate heat and electricity for the campus.
(Credit KUAC file photo)

“It was not uncommon to have bills for Tok School that were $30,000 a month,” says Scott MacManus, an administrator with Tok-based Alaska Gateway School District.

MacManus says those kinds of electricity bills convinced district officials they had to do something. So in 2010, they used an Alaska Energy Authority grant to build arenewable-energy system that burns wood chips to generate heat and electricity for Tok School.

This year, they invested in efficient lighting and put in place an energy-conservation program.

“We’ve undertaken a lot of efforts to save energy, because the cost of power is so high that it’s taking away from our kids our ability to provide a higher-quality education,” he said.

MacManus says those investments paid off: the biomass-fueled cogeneration system and energy-conservation effort have cut the school’s annual electricity bill about a third.

But he says those savings are being offset by Alaska Power Company raising its rates earlier this year, with another rate hike pending for early next year.

“We’ve dropped several hundred thousand dollars over the course of the last several years to do this,” he said. “…And their argument is, essentially, because we’re saving money, they have to charge more. Because we’re saving energy, they have to charge more.”

That’s part of the reason for the rate hike, says Mike Garrett. He’s the executive vice president of Alaska Power and Telephone, or AP&T, the parent company of Alaska Power Company.

Garrett concedes his company loses revenue when customers use less electricity – especially big customers, like the school district. It loses even more when big customers go away altogether, like the Coast Guard’s LORAN radar station, which shut down in 2010, and the Westmark Hotel, which closed last fall and hasn’t reopened for the summer tourist season.

“It’s a pretty simple math,” he said, “that if your costs go up, and the demand for the energy that you’re selling goes down, your rates are going to go up if you’re trying to recover those costs.”

Garrett says AP&T requested an 18 percent rate hike last year, its first such request since 2009, to close the gap in revenues created by falling demand and rising overhead costs.

“Maintaining lines. Maintaining generators. Going out and repairing when there’s a storm. Or costs associated with outages at 50 below. Those kinds of costs only get recovered whenever we do a rate case.”

The Regulatory Commission of Alaska granted AP&T an interim rate hike of 6 percent, effective last January, while it considers the company’s request for an 18 percent increase. It’ll announce its decision on that in February.

The commission also granted AP&T’s requests for cost of power adjustments, which enable utilities to charge customers more to cover the rising costs of fuel to generate electricity.

MacManus says he understand the economic realities that AP&T is facing. But he says the company needs to do more to adapt to changing conditions, like phasing out its oversized and inefficient diesel-fueled generators. And using more renewables to generate electricity. And encouraging, instead of discouraging, its customers to do the same.

“They have people who are willing to invest. People who would invest their own money into a power-system solution, as long as they were able to get something back out of it.”

Richard Kemper is one of those people. He’s set up a solar panel at his home in Tok, installed efficient lighting and he practices energy conservation.

Kemper doesn’t like the idea of paying more for electricity. But he believes it’s the price that we’ll all have to pay in order to transition into a sustainable-energy-fueled future.

“I think that we are in a transition period, from a time of cheap fossil-fuel power and not really caring about efficiency as far as energy goes. And it’s going to be a bumpy road.”

Kemper says homeowners should assume personal responsibility to solve the high-energy-cost problem by investing in an alternative-energy system. Because it’s the right thing to do – and because, eventually, it’ll pay off.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage economic outlook slow to moderate

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:41

Consumers in Anchorage are feeling positive. The city’s Consumer Optimism Index has reached a four-year high — 63 out of 100. The score is based on random phone surveys of at least 350 households. But the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation says that doesn’t mean everything is looking up. 

The three-year outlook for Anchorage shows only slow to moderate economic growth. On the one hand, data compiled by the economic research organization McDowell Group shows personal income is expected to grow nearly five percent each year for the next three years. Tourism is has reached a record high. Passenger volumes at the international airport are up two percent.

But on the other hand, airport freight volumes will remain steady. “What’s happening is that the industry — the logistics supply chain industry — is getting more efficient,”  AEDC president Bill Popp explained to a luncheon on Wednesday. “They’re getting smarter about ordering further in advance. So they’re making use of surface transportation as an alternative to more expensive air cargo. We’re also seeing another interesting effect. We’re seeing these new generation aircraft that can carry more tonnage. So you don’t need as many planes to carry the same amount of tonnage.”

The data does predict a slight increase of 3 percent per year growth at the Anchorage Port, however it’s still much less than it was 10 years ago.

The population of the city will only increase by one percent each year from 2015 to 2017. “This is predicated on fruitfulness locally,” Popp said. “More babies. And it is not predicated on people moving to town. We actually have a net outflow of adults.”

He said it’s partially because of the city’s lack of housing and high cost of living.

As for employment, Anchorage is gaining private sector jobs, but it’s losing almost as many government jobs, primarily from the federal government and from schools. Overall employment is predicted to increase by one percent per year.

Popp said the biggest challenges facing the Anchorage economy are declining oil production and prices because of the revenue and jobs the resource brings to the state.

Categories: Alaska News

2015 Yukon Quest Purse Over $127,000

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:40

The Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race organization announced the 2015 race purse Wednesday. The first 15 mushers to cross the finish line next February stand to win a percentage of more than $127,000.

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That’s a more than $12,000 increase from last year. The extra moneys comes from what was not paid out in 2014. Last year’s race saw only 12 finishers.

Official sign-ups for the 2015 race open this coming Saturday, August second.

The 2015 Yukon Quest starts in Whitehorse on Saturday February 7th.

Categories: Alaska News

Meetings To Highlight Southeast Transportation Projects

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:39

Southeast Alaskans can learn more about regional transportation projects at a series of meetings starting next week.

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Categories: Alaska News

As Budget Deficit Looms, Juneau Assembly Eyes Tax Breaks

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:38

Gladi Kulp shows her senior tax exemption card at IGA. She says she normally doesn’t use it for small purchases, but her cashier knows her and prompted her for the card number. She saved about 85 cents this trip. (Photo by Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

With another year of multimillion dollar budget deficits on the horizon for the City and Borough of Juneau, an Assembly committee is reviewing the city’s 37 sales and property tax exemptions.

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Through sales tax exemptions in 2013, the city gave up nearly $78 million in revenue that could have paid for city services like education, libraries, police and fire protection, road maintenance and parks.

Assembly members on the committee are well aware that this is the hard part of being in elected office.

“If we make any changes that are going to cost anybody any more money, they’re not going to be popular,” Assemblyman Jerry Nankervis said at the committee’s first meeting last week.

After a long pause, Assemblywoman Kate Troll pointed out, “This is not a popularity committee,” which lead to hearty laughter from the committee.

With no changes, the city predicts it will be about $7 million short in the next budget year. The committee and city finance staff agreed that tightening exemptions on big-ticket goods and services is a good idea. Right now, the sales tax paid on a single good or service is typically capped at $375.

“Well, I definitely agree the cap is a good one,” said Sales Tax Administrator Clinton Singletary. “It hasn’t been adjusted since ’91, so it’s been awhile.”

Those caps saved taxpayers more than $5 million last year.

The senior citizens’ sales tax exemption is also under review and bound to be more controversial.

Assemblywoman Kate Troll says she’s interested in scaling it back so wealthier seniors no longer qualify. She also wants to create a new exemption on unprepared foods.

“That would benefit a larger cross section of Juneau. And, actually, people that probably are more deserving or needing of that exemption on food than some of our well paid seniors,” Troll said.

Senior citizens saved almost $2.9 million through the tax break last year.

Both the number of senior sales tax exemption cards issued and the dollar value of untaxed sales have grown steadily since at least 2006, according to finance department figures.

That lines up with a graying trend in Juneau demographics. The Alaska Department of Labor & Workforce Development projects Juneau’s 65 and older population will grow much faster than the overall population in the coming decades.

The tax exemption review committee meets again Aug. 7. Its report is due to the full Assembly by the new year. Similar tax exemption reviews were last completed in 2005 and 2006.

Categories: Alaska News

Parnell Signs Bill Honoring Late Walter Soboleff

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:37

Gov. Sean Parnell has signed legislation honoring the late Tlingit elder Walter Soboleff.

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HB217 designates Nov. 14 of each year as Dr. Walter Soboleff Day in Alaska. That date was Soboleff’s birthday.

The bill signing ceremony was held in a downtown Juneau park, not far from where work is underway on a cultural center bearing Soboleff’s name that is being built by the Sealaska Heritage Institute.

Soboleff’s children were on hand for Wednesday’s bill signing, which also featured Alaska Native dancing.

Soboleff died in 2011 at age 102. He was a respected spiritual leader, remembered by Parnell as a man who loved all Alaskans.

Categories: Alaska News

Juneau Turns Out For Downtown Cleanup

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2014-07-30 17:36

Bruce Denton, right, leads the downtown cleanup. (Photo courtesy Brent Fischer/CBJ Parks & Recreation)

More than 100 Juneau volunteers recently joined City and Borough crews to pull weeds, sweep, hose, scrub and pick up what some estimate to be thousands of cigarette butts.

It was the first event organized by an informal Downtown Improvement Group.

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“I think everyone picked up cigarette butts,” said 9-year-old Adara Allen.

She was a bit grossed out by all the cigarette butts that litter downtown Juneau.

“We scrubbed benches and I scrubbed railings. We picked up a ton of trash. Like a lot of cigarette butts. Almost all of it was that,” she said.

Adara and her 12-year-old sister Tsifira Kiehl joined their dad, Assemblyman Jesse Kiehl, in the cleanup.

“Adara found a whole milk jug, partly full,” Tsifira said. “Mostly I scrubbed benches and railings and stuff. I also picked up a lot of stuff, including cans, broken glass, cigarette butts.”

Cigarette butt litter is the byproduct of Juneau’s indoor smoking ban, despite the number of receptacles that line city sidewalks.

Alicia Smith was scrubbing a butt receptacle on South Franklin Street. Her son Joel also had a scrub brush.

“Right now I’m just scrubbing the lamp post down,” he said. “I just wanted to help clean up downtown.”

Business owner Bruce Denton came up with the idea for a cleanup as part of an effort to improve the heart of the capital city. He’s been joined by an informal coalition of business and property owners, downtown residents, the Glory Hole and social service agencies.

Denton took the proposal to CBJ Parks and Recreation, which welcomed the help. The city provided tools, cleaners, buckets, garbage bags, and rubber gloves. Some volunteers showed up with their own favorite tools and Juneau businesses donated other supplies.

They met at Pocket Park and worked along Front, Seward and Franklin streets, and Marine Way to the Willoughby district.

The small army of workers included a who’s who of city officials, a legislator, business owners and employees, a myriad of Juneau residents and some homeless folks.

Deborah Harris has been in Juneau for about a month and is living at the Glory Hole, Juneau’s emergency shelter and soup kitchen.

Harris was washing the historical interpretive sign in Marine Park.

“So this morning we’re just getting’ all the mold and the grime and everything off and scrapin’ it up,” she said.

CBJ Parks and Landscape Superintendent George Schaaf was working in Marine Park, too. He said it’s one of the hardest places in downtown to keep up.

“You know a million people come through here every year, plus everything that just happens on a daily basis, so it’s more than we’re able to take care of right now,” Schaaf said.

Volunteer Mike Patterson organized the Willoughby Avenue group, where they found the usual trash and a lot of Styrofoam.

“And I don’t know where that came from, but it was everywhere,” Patterson said.

He said it shouldn’t require a small army to pick up litter, which ought not be there in the first place.

“If everybody does their part and just picks up litter and puts it in one of the many garbage receptacles we have around Juneau then it doesn’t have to get to that state again,” Patterson said. “It just takes people caring.”

About 11 o’clock, the volunteers arrived back at Pocket Park, stripped off the rubber gloves and enjoyed music and a thank-you picnic for their efforts.

“The last time I saw Gunakadeit Park this clean was when it was built,” said CBJ Parks and Recreation Director Brent Fischer.

Fischer said keeping the capital city clean should be a community effort.

“If we have community support like this, we can get it done. From the city’s standpoint, we can’t do it alone,” he said.

Fischer is already looking ahead to the next scour and scrub.

“I hope we can do this in the spring time, so get your rubber gloves, get your tools out, get your brushes and come back.”

Denton is planning another cleanup after the cruise ships leave this fall to focus on private property, including painting some downtown buildings that could use a facelift.

Original story:

Downtown Juneau is a lot cleaner today thanks to more than 100 volunteers who joined city crews to sweep, hose and scrub streets and sidewalks.

Juneau residents as well as the homeless joined city officials and landscape crews for the three-hour cleanup. It started at Gunakadeit Park, also known as pocket park, then wound along Front, Seward and Franklin streets to the Willoughby district.

Bridget Smith spent the first hour scrubbing dirt and moss from a forgotten park post.

“As citizens we all have a collective responsibility to make our community better, to make our state better, to make our nation better and this is part of it. And I am so happy to see so many people here,” Smith said.

The Downtown Improvement Group hopes to join the city and borough for another cleanup this fall, at the end of the cruise ship season.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Southwest, Southeast Alaska Face Highest Risks From Ocean Acidification

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-07-29 17:23

Coastal communities in Alaska that depend on fisheries were warned Tuesday to prepare for the impacts of ocean acidification. A study from federal agencies says many of the science questions remain unanswered but changes are already happening.

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The first concern is likely shellfish, because when the chemistry of the ocean changes, it’s harder for them to form shells. But which commercial shellfish and when they might be affected and in what waters are questions they can’t answer yet. But what the study can say is which communities are most vulnerable. This is the first product from the Synthesis of Arctic Research effort that combines the work of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with that of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and University researchers in social sciences.

Co-author Sarah Cooley, who wrote the report while at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and is now Scientific Outreach Manager of the Ocean Conservancy, says Wrangell, Petersburg, Sitka and the Lake and Peninsula Borough are specifically named because they are fishing towns.

“And what we find is that dependence on fisheries is really the key link between ocean chemistry conditions and human communities,” Cooley said. “Right now in Alaska, we have a very heavy dependence on specific harvests.”

“And those specific harvests of crabs and clams and shellfish are actually the things that we think are sort of at the front lines of harm from ocean acidification.”

Acidity is directly related to rising levels of carbon dioxide in the air. It is worst in colder waters and in melt water. To the north in the Chukchi Sea, measurements show the cold acidic water from below increasingly rising to meet the cold acidic waters at the surface…with largely unknown biological effects. Of particular concern are the shell dependent plankton – krill and copepods and a little aquatic snail known as the pteropod, which is heavily fed on by Pink Salmon. But acidity also affects the tiny squid that the King Salmon eat.

“Some species of squid respond poorly to ocean acidification, too, because they have such a high metablolic rate that they can’t exhale as efficiently,” Cooley said.

That’s called an indirect effect in the study. They just can’t say what might be happening to salmon and other fin-fish because of it. Cooley says It is a big and complicated ecosystem out there.

“I think there are more surprises in store, because ecosystems are amazingly resilient,” Cooley said. “But I would love it if we could figure out where the surprises are going to be before we have nasty surprises, like in the Pacific Northwest, when we had nasty surprises of sudden losses of oysters. I’m hoping we can figure it out before we have more losses for people.”

In the case of oysters, the fix turned out to doable. It just took monitoring. When the acid waters shoal up, the oyster farmers change timing, depth, or even dose their larvae with antacids. It took them time to learn all this. And Sarah Cooley says that’s the real point of this report – it’s an effort to try to start getting ahead of the acidity change curve.

“But I think when we start to do studies like this, we can actually kind of go under the hood and figure out the pieces that make a community more or less likely to be hurt, and so we can try to fix those ahead of time,” Cooley said.

Cooley says the options include diversification and securing local government control, but might simply mean things like changing fishing areas and different times.  But certainly better monitoring of acidity levels is going to be key for adaptation by coastal communities in Alaska.

Categories: Alaska News

Research Team Sets Out For Islands of Four Mountains

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-07-29 17:22

The Islands of the Four Mountains as seen from the International Space Station in 2013. Cleveland Volcano is at center. (Courtesy: NASA)

A group of researchers set out from Unalaska this week to a remote part of the central Aleutians: the Islands of the Four Mountains. The 16 scientists are beginning a three-year mission in territory that’s unpredictable – and largely unexplored.

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Weather was clear and sunny in Dutch Harbor on Saturday while the research team loaded up their charter vessel with food and supplies. As most of them know from experience in this part of Alaska, conditions can change in an instant.

Still, lead archaeologist Dixie West was hoping for the best.

“I’m expecting fair skies and wonderful winds, and that we’re going to find some exciting information about how volcanic impacts and tsunamis impacted prehistoric humans,” she said, standing on the spit dock Saturday afternoon.

West works with the University of Kansas. She headed out to the uninhabited Islands of the Four Mountains on Sunday — with her, a group of experts who study volcanoes, tsunamis, earthquakes, climate and biology and prehistoric settlements.

This will be the first year of a three-year expedition, funded in part by the National Science Foundation. Next year is more field work, and in year three, they’ll write up their findings.

West and the others will stage their research on Chuginadak Island, near one of the most active volcanoes in the Aleutian chain — Mt. Cleveland. They’ll be working in the volcano’s shadow, studying how prehistoric Unangan peoples might have lived there.

“So hopefully we’ll be able to add something to modern information about how people should expect volcanoes to behave, and how possibly better to react to them,” she said.

Most of the researchers took a boat to the island group. A few followed by helicopter — the same one that’ll transport them between the ship and the island’s shore, since there isn’t a dock in the Islands of the Four Mountains.

One who went on the chopper is Max Kaufman, a research technician with the Alaska Volcano Observatory. He’s going to help install seismometers on Cleveland Volcano for the first time.

“Getting these stations in will really help us understand its sort of background behavior,” he said on Saturday.

And through their work, he said, they also “hope to provide some degree of safety for the crew working out there, doing the archaeological studies” — because, he says, you never know when the volcano might wake up. It’s been a little restless in recent days, but Kaufman’s hoping it’ll stick to its usual low-level behavior.

Still, he admitted that the Islands of the Four Mountains are a bit of a daunting destination.

“It seems quite remote, despite its proximity to Dutch Harbor,” he laughed.

So Kaufman and the other researchers will have to be ready for anything the islands throw at them — and so will the crew of their charter vessel, the Maritime Maid. It’s been used for scientific charters before. Skipper George Rains says he’s used to navigating the Aleutians’ tricky coastlines.

“It’s a challenge — it’s always probably been a challenge, from the days the natives were out there,” Rains said as he stood in the wheelhouse of the Maritime Maid. “But basically, you just have to be careful of the weather, move around and stay out of it.”

Twelve members of the team can stay aboard the ship, while the rest will be camping on shore. Most of them will stay out on-site for next three weeks — hoping to start uncovering some of the mysteries that the Islands of the Four Mountains have in store.

You can follow the researchers’ progress on Facebook, or on Twitter @Islandsof4Mtns.

Categories: Alaska News

UA President Offered Bonus at Time of Budget Cuts

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-07-29 17:21

The president of the University of Alaska has been offered a $320,000 bonus if he stays on the job until 2016.

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The board of regents last month voted to offer a contract extension to Pat Gamble that included the bonus, which is equal to one year of his salary.

Some faculty members called the bonus inappropriate with budget cuts and layoffs planned. The University of Alaska Fairbanks plans to lay off about 40 people to close a $12 million budget shortfall. Other campuses plan to leave open positions unfilled.

University system spokeswoman Kate Ripley told the Alaska Dispatch News Gamble’s pay package is modest compared to other university executives.

Categories: Alaska News

ConocoPhillips to Operate New Doyon Drill Rig

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-07-29 17:20

Doyon is building a new North Slope oil drilling rig, the Interior Regional Native Corporation will operate for Conoco Phillips.

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Categories: Alaska News

Port MacKenzie Poised For Post-Oil Economy

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2014-07-29 17:19

 Port MacKenzie director Marc VanDongen says the load of cement – coated pipe proves the Port’s heavy lifting capabilities:

“Each piece of pipe is 42 feet long and it weighs 10,500 pounds. So we were lifting four pieces of pipe at a time off the ship, 42, 000 pounds at a time, and placing them on flatbed trucks. “

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In March of this year, VanDongen told the Matanuska Susitna Borough Assembly that he wants more than 915 thousand dollars to run the Port this year. [fy15starts this month] That figure includes 135 thousand dollars for work on existing infrastructure that is to be paid for with a state grant. This year’s Port Mac operating budget is about the same as last year’s – close to 800 thousand dollars.  Through advertisements on its webpage and elsewhere, the Borough has been promoting the Port as a necessity for the economic development of the area.   Borough manager John Moosey says,

“We have a tremendous opportunity, and we are really looking for being the answer to our post – oil economy here in Alaska. We want to take a lead in that and a partnership with the state of Alaska.”

 Moosey says this year, because of federal accounting system changes, the Port budget will be paid for with the Borough’s operating funds.  Before that, Port expenses were paid out of an enterprise fund, which meets expenses through user fees.

“Traditionally, Port MacKenzie had an enterprise fund. With the new GASB, which is the new accounting rules, for 2015, we are funding this out of our general operations, our general tax levy. When we can return the operations to cover expenses versus revenues, we will be flipping this back to an enterprise fund operation.”

 But, Moosey says, the Port’s profitability depends on a rail link to the Port from Houston. That link is under construction, but won’t be completed for some time… possibly not before 2018.

 Port MacKenzie has not turned a profit since 2008, when 451 tons of gravel was off loaded there. Van Dongen says that activity generated 832 thousand dollars profit in royalties, wharfage and dockage fees. Van Dongen says this month’s load of cement pipe is generating income, too.

 ”It’s going to depend on how long the pipe is sitting on the dock. There’s a monthly charger per square foot that they are leasing the dock. They’re leasing an office in our terminal building. There’s wharfage, there’s dockage for when the pipe comes in and there is a different rate for when it goes out. Roughly, I’m estimating between 60 and 70 thousand dollars from this one operation. “

 He, too, says that the rail link is vital to the Port’s continued economic health.

 But some have questioned whether or not the Borough is throwing money into a ditch.

“It’s not feasible. It’s not economically viable.”

That’s a comment from  Grace Whedbee, a  Big Lake homeowner.  Whedbee is a contractor who works in ppost – disaster infrastructure recovery.  She  has written a report critical of Port MacKenzie, and has also has sided with local environmental groups in a lawsuit against construction of the rail link. Whedbee, who is a contractor, says it is unlikely that Port MacKenzie will ever make money, because of its location.

 Whedbee says currents at Port MacKenzie are too fast for the safety of big freighters, and that the ships have to travel further to get there than they do to get to the port in Seward. And she says if Alaska products are to be shipped out of state, it’s cheaper to ship them by railroad to Seward.

 ”As taxpayers, we are going to continue to pay on this until someone wises up and says ‘How much more money are we going to put into it?’ I do not think that, long run, that port will ever be able to be a world port, that is used to ship around the world.”

 Let’s look at the recent shipment of cement covered pipe delivered to Port MacKenzie this month. The pipe was built in Korea, then sent to Mexico for the cement coating, before it was shipped to Alaska on a Panamanian flagged ship with a Chinese crew. Van Dongen says Port MacKenzie was the optimal destination because of the space available there for storing the pipe. He says near term plans are to expand the port’s customer base to include a fuel tank farm, and that negotiations are in the works with two companies interested in starting an LNG export operation at the Port.

Borough manager Moosey says the Borough’s long term plan regarding the Port includes asking the state for money for a second dock.

“That plan sits right in our capital improvement program. Essentially, we are planning that when the rail line is complete, activity will pick up greatly at Port MacKenzie and there will eventually be a need for additional dock space and transportation coming in. We don’t anticipate this happening for at least three or four years, and at that time, we’ll bring forth a plan to the state legislature or look at bonding options to make that happen. But that is farther out in the future.”

Moosey says that that request won’t be made until the railroad link is complete. At that time, the Borough will firm up a marketing plan to attract more business to the Port.

Categories: Alaska News
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