Alaska News

State Seeks Delay In Indian Country Expansion

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-06 17:07

Governor Bill Walker’s administration is seeking more time to assess the potential impact of expanding Indian Country in Alaska.

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The Alaska Dispatch News reports state Attorney General Craig Richards is asking for a six-month delay in a case before a federal appeals court in a long-running battle affecting tribal sovereignty.

In 2013, the District of Columbia appellate court ruled in favor of four Alaska Native tribal governments and one individual who sued the U.S. Interior Department.

The appellate court ruling led to an Interior Department rule to accept land into trust for Alaska tribes and individuals with Native allotments.

Interior is not appealing, but the state is.

Plaintiffs’ attorney Heather Kendall-Miller says the Interior Department’s ability to put land into trust for Alaska Natives is thus on hold.

Categories: Alaska News

Kuskokwim Fishermen Set Sights on Co-Management

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-06 17:06

Kuskokwim River Inter Tribal Fisheries Commission steering committee members hear from AVCP attorney Sky Starkey. (Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK)

Efforts to establish tribal co-management of Kuskokwim salmon are slowly progressing. A steering committee is in Bethel to sketch out the future of who regulates the river. Kuskokwim fishermen are eager to be managers, instead of simply advisers.

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10 members of a steering committee met for the first time in Bethel Thursday. Fisherman from Nikolai at the headwaters down to the mouth began to define what they want to see in tribal co-management. Committee member Bob Aloysius from Kalskag emphasized tribes need to be more than simply advisers.

“Recommendations to go a point, and nothing happens. We need to have authority to implement, maintain, monitor, and enforce whatever we come up with,” said Aloysius.

The steering committee for the Kuskokwim River Intertribal Fisheries Commission is being facilitated by the Association of Village Council Presidents and Tanana Chiefs Conference, building off of tribal resolutions passed last year. Kuskokwim king salmon runs have been in decline for several years and unprecedented restrictions have hit subsistence fishermen hard. That’s led to conflicts among communities along different parts of the river. Jacob Black from Napakiak said for tribal management to succeed, everyone has to be on board.

“Our elders used to say, there may be a lot of people on the Kuskokwim or Alaska, but if you’re not united, you’re never going to accomplish nothing, that’s 100 percent true, to me. Right now we are not united,” said Black.

The full commission someday would include representatives from all Kuskokwim tribes choosing to take part. The smaller steering committee is trying to determine next steps and outline the mission and goal. They elected Bob Aloysius and Mike Williams as interim co-chairs while more members are expected to join. The long-term vision in some capacity includes equal footing among tribes, state and federal managers.

In the meantime, a federal demonstration project for co-management could build capacity for the change. Gene Peltola Junior, the assistant regional director for the Federal Office of Subsistence Management described a possible new committee under the federal subsistence board. He says if it’s structured properly it could have more input.

“But if they were to give it weighted opinion, or whatever you call it, I truly feel the local individual would have a lot more say in management than they have had in the past,” said Peltola Junior.

Sky Starkey, an attorney who works for AVCP presented a vision of how the committee could push the boundary of the law in order to maximize co-management potential.

To give it teeth, Starkey says tribes should seek broad application of a section of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, or ANILCA, that governs subsistence on federal lands. That would force the federal board to defer to their committee’s plan, unless the proposal fails to meet strict criteria.

“Trying to use that and trying to strengthen it so the recommendations carry a lot of weight,” said Starkey.

One idea is to create a new regional advisory council that replaces the fish responsibilities of two current regional committees. In the very preliminary conception, tribes would make comprehensive management plans and take responsibility for researching and monitoring fish, while giving traditional knowledge equal footing.

The meeting continues Friday at the cultural center in Bethel. A meeting for Yukon tribes is scheduled for next week in Fairbanks.

Categories: Alaska News

Cook Inlet LNG Will Require Lead Time

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-06 17:05

The state has proposed purchase of Fairbanks Natural Gas as part of a plan to increase the volume of Cook Inlet gas available in the Interior. The governor has indicated that could begin as early as next year, but the timeline may stretch out longer.

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Categories: Alaska News

High Winds, Low Temperatures Cut Through Southeast Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-06 17:04

A strong and freezing cold wind cut through Haines and Skagway on Thursday and Friday. Gusts reached up to 100 miles per hour. And with temperatures in the single digits, the wind chill was at least 20 below.

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Categories: Alaska News

300 Villages: Levelock

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-06 17:02

This week, we’re heading to Levelock on the Kvichak River near Bristol Bay. Chadalin Washington is an administrative assistant in Levelock.

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Categories: Alaska News

Health Department Says Medicaid Expansion Can Save State Money

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-06 15:35

Health Commissioner Valerie Davidson and Alaska Governor Bill Walker announce the state’s plan for Medicaid expansion and reform. (Photo by Annie Feidt, APRN – Anchorage)

Health Commissioner Valerie Davidson unveiled two new reports Friday at a press conference in Anchorage she hopes will help make the case for Medicaid expansion.

They show Alaska can actually save money by expanding the program, even as the federal match drops below 100 percent. But whether Republican state lawmakers skeptical of expansion will agree with the analysis is an open question.

Health Commissioner Valerie Davidson never misses a chance to make the case for Medicaid expansion. Even when that chance comes in the form of a cell phone ringer that someone in the press conference crowd forgot to silence:

“Maybe it’s somebody calling saying they’re ready to sign up! Which would be great. We’ll be ready this summer,” she said.

A lot has to happen between now and this summer – July specifically – when Davidson hopes to role out expansion. The health department is devoting extra resources to fix big problems with the systems that enroll new Medicaid members and pay providers for services. The biggest obstacle, though, will be Republican state lawmakers, who have to approve the receipt of federal Medicaid expansion funds in their budget. Many say the state can’t afford to expand the Medicaid program, which is already one of the biggest drivers of the state budget. But Davidson says a new analysis shows Medicaid expansion won’t cost the state, even when the federal match drops to 90 percent in 2020.

“We’ve… identified some pretty significant savings and Alaska actually saves general fund dollars by covering this new population,” Davidson said.

State prisoners, for example, would be eligible for Medicaid expansion, saving the state $4-7 million a year, according to the report. The health department would also be able to redirect millions of dollars in grant money that is currently used to help the population who would be eligible for expansion. Davidson also wants expansion to spur the process of reducing the cost of the entire Medicaid program. She thinks the cost savings combined with reform will convince lawmakers to approve it:

“Quite frankly I think there are some legislators who aren’t necessarily so hot on expansion but they’re interested in reform and if the two go hand in hand and we can show that there are savings to the state at a time when we are looking for those savings opportunities in our general fund, then I believe they’ll come on board,” Davidson said.

Republican legislators declined to comment until they had more time to review the reports.

In the coming weeks, they will be hearing from a long list of organizations that support expansion, including the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority. The organization is pledging $1.6 million for the first year of expansion to cover the state’s share of administrative costs. Jeff Jesse is chief executive office with the trust, which serves Alaskans with substance abuse problems, mental illness and cognitive disabilities. He says it makes sense for the trust to help out because expansion will benefit Alaskans the group serves.

“The Trustees certainly had to think about the cost issue, but the purpose of the Mental Health Trust is to be a catalyst for change and assist in enhancing our service system for our beneficiaries, so this is a very appropriate project for the trust,” Jesse said.

The Trust is also giving $300,000 to the health department to pay national experts to study successful Medicaid cost reform efforts in other states.

About 40,000, mostly childless adults, would be eligible for Medicaid expansion. But in the first full year of implementation, according to the new report, only half of those who are eligible would sign up.

Categories: Alaska News

Is An Ambitious Arctic Agenda Economically Viable?

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-06 12:00

(USGS photo)

An ambitious set of priorities has been put together for the American chairmanship of the Arctic Council that begins this year, but neither the federal government nor the state has much money to pay for implementing those priorities. Climate change is amplified in the Arctic, and the Arctic nations want to work together to respond.

HOST: Steve Heimel, Alaska Public Radio Network


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Categories: Alaska News

Combating Anchorage’s Violent Crime Spike

APRN Alaska News - Fri, 2015-02-06 08:00

Anchorage Assembly member Paul Honeman (left) and Anchorage Police Department Chief Mark Mew (right) talk with Zachariah Hughes (center) on Alaska Edition. (Photo by Josh Edge, APRN, Anchorage)

A recent uptick in deadly shooting incidents and assaults in Anchorage have police and public safety advocates sprinting to organize a response to curb the violent trend. The Anchorage Police Department is organizing a task-force to tackle the problem, but what can communities do to help remedy the problem?

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HOST: Zachariah Hughes


  • Mark Mew, chief, Anchorage Police Department
  • Paul Honeman, member, Anchorage Assembly

KSKA (FM 91.1) BROADCAST: Friday, February 6 at 2:00 p.m. and Saturday, February 7 at 6:00 p.m.

Alaska Public Television BROADCAST: Friday, February 6 at 7:30 p.m. and Saturday, February 7 at 4:30 p.m.

Categories: Alaska News

Looming Discharge Regulations Exasperate Commercial Boat Owners

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-02-05 17:14

Alaska fishermen have three years before the EPA is supposed to begin regulating deck wash, bilge water and other liquids discharged from small vessels.

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski this week introduced a bill to permanently block the regulation for commercial vessels under 79 feet. Senate co-sponsors include Alaska’s Dan Sullivan, and California Democrat Barbara Boxer. 

The threat of the looming discharge regulation frustrates owners of commercial boats from Alaska to Florida. Robert Zales, president of the National Association of Charter Boat Operators, let his exasperation show in testimony at a recent U.S. Senate hearing.

“How, how do I – I can’t even give you an answer to that question on how much rain runs off my deck on a particular day,” Zales said. ”It’s rainwater that would’ve hit the water if it hadn’t hit my boat, so what is the purpose?”

Murkowski and Boxer nearly won a permanent exemption for small boats last year. But owners of bigger vessels objected, saying the exemption should cover their ballast water discharge, too. Boxer says ballast water poses more danger because it can carry invasive species from port to port.


Categories: Alaska News

Yukon Quest Rookies Tout Knowledge, Experience Of Champions

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-02-05 17:11

Of the 26 mushers signed up to race dog teams in this year’s Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race, 10 are rookies. They might be new to the race, but a few trained dog teams with a handful of well-known and champion long-distance mushers.

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When Yukon Quest veterinarians gave Kristin Knight-Pace’s dog team the green light following their pre-race check-up, the rookie musher breathed a sigh of relief.

“I’m just ready to hit the trail, “ she said. “The preparation has been exhausting and comprehensive and taken over our whole life and it seems like all we’ve been doing is preparing and preparing and I just want to be on the runners.”

Knight-Pace, of Healy, both worked and trained with former Yukon Quest and Iditarod Champion Jeff King.  She said she sought plenty of advice from King over the last year.

“I’m pretty sure I was filling my quota of calls to Jeff,” laughed Knight-Pace.

She said the 1000 mile race will be the longest distance she’s ever travelled with a dog team in one shot, so even though she’d like to be competitive, it’s likely she’ll hold her team back.

“I’m mostly realistic,” she said. “I think part of being competitive is wanting to succeed and in order to succeed, you have to cross the finish line and in order to cross the finish line, especially for a rookie, you have to be pretty conservative.”

Knight-Pace’s plan is similar to the one Two-Rivers musher Ryne Olson is working on for her rookie Quest run.

“Yeah, there are a lot of unknowns there.  It’s kind of an exciting feeling,” said Olson. “I get to do something I’ve never done before.  I’ve never planned for a 1000 mile race before by myself, so yeah this will be fun.”

But Olson has helped plan other 1000-mile sled dog races.  She used to work for defending champion Allen Moore and three-time second place Iditarod finisher Aliy Zirkle.  As part of that job, Olson drove a young team to Nome in 2012.  She’s also showed off a competitive edge in her mid-distance qualifying races, including last month’s Copper Basin 300 where she placed third.

“It’s going to be really hard for me to take it easy on the dogs, especially when I get in the race setting I want to see what they can do. I want to see what I can do,” said Olson.

Despite her resume, Olson said she’ll also try to race conservatively, in part because many of her dogs are only two years old.

“I’m hoping we’ll be square in the middle,” she said. “Definitely in the future I want to try and be up there with the front runners and just because they are so young, and while the Copper Basin was great and I am so proud of them, it’s just a totally different race and I want this to be a learning experience and a real positive experience.”

A learning experience is what Damon Tedford is looking to gain from his race.

“I’m like an official rookie,” Tedford laughed. “It’s funny you should ask because when I was filling out my form for the Quest it’s like ‘how long have you been mushing?’ And I just put less then a year and I had somebody on the Facebook actually say ‘less than a year? What are you doing attempting this?’”

Tedford is an emergency room doctor from Vancouver, British Columbia.  He’s running a team owned by Iditarod Champion Mitch Seavey.

“‘Just mush!’ is kind of Mitch’s line,” he said. “We kind of joke around the kennel about that, but trying not to sweat the small stuff,” he said. “If the dogs are running and eating and you’re focused on looking after your dogs and not making mountains out of molehills and focused on having a good time, that’s the best advice anybody can give you.”

Another rookie musher who’s received decades’ worth of mushing advice is Ray Redington Junior. He comes from mushing royalty. His grandfather is Iditarod founder, Joe Redington Senior. He’s confident his team can hold up against competitors he has faced in other races.

“I think I can probably do ok I guess,” he said.  “I look at the field. I race against them all the time. They ain’t any better. They just know where we’re going.”

26 dog teams will go west from Whitehorse. Over the next two weeks, they’ll travel 1000 miles along an old Gold-Rush Era trail to cross the finish line in Alaska’s Golden Heart City.

Categories: Alaska News

Why Some Alaskans Are Learning The Tlingit Language

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-02-05 17:09

Participants of the Tlingit Language Learners Group point to the ceiling during an exercise called Total Physical Response. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

A group of people in Juneau spend an hour every Monday practicing Tlingit. They bring dictionaries and flashcards, look at handouts and do language exercises. But this isn’t a class.

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An informal group that meets at the Downtown Public Library was started by Tlingit language students who understand that learning the language also means teaching it to as many people as possible.

Seventeen people sit around a table practicing sounds of the Tlingit language. They’re watching a YouTube video made by X̱’unei, or Lance Twitchell. He teaches Tlingit at University of Alaska Southeast and is a vocal proponent of language revitalization.

But Twitchell’s voice over the speakers is the only trace of a Tlingit language teacher in the room.

The group was formed last spring, a result of a brainstorming session on how to bring Tlingit language and culture to the community in an accessible way. One of its founders Richard Radford has been studying Tlingit for two and a half years.

“We’re all learners and so it is kind of like a class of students getting to sort of call the shots,” Radford says.

Which means the group can go in many different directions.

“Anybody can share pretty much anything. We learned how to introduce ourselves in Persian a little while ago from someone coming in. We’re really open to that. Multiculturalism is a really a big part of this,” he says.

Radford says the group relies heavily on books, dictionaries, YouTube videos and handouts made by more experienced Tlingit speakers.

“There are elders and linguists and artists and culture bearers and professors and other language learners and all sorts of people from all over the place who provide us with so much. We’re just standing on the shoulders of giants,” Radford says.

The group is made up of regulars and others who drop in because they’re curious.

At age 56, Nancy Keen has made it a goal to learn Tlingit. Her grandfather was fluent, but her mother never spoke a word. Keen’s been drumming and singing clan songs with Southeast dance groups for five years and that’s spurred her interest.

“You have to want to know what you’re singing about. And you have to want to know that you should pronounce this stuff correctly because the language is just so subtle in nature that it’s really easy to say something wrong when you don’t mean to,” Keen says.

Richard Radford (right) is one of the founding members of the Tlingit Language Learners Group. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Tlingit is a tonal language. Similar sounding words that mean drastically different things are distinguished by an inflection of the voice. The group practices these similar sounding words:

“Eech” means reef while “éechʼ” describes something compact and heavy.

Keen says she can’t put full sentences together yet so she’s working hard on memorizing sounds and pronunciations.

She appreciates the group’s passion for making the Tlingit language so available.

“There was a lot of talk about building language nests and now it’s starting to actually come to light, and so that’s how we’re going to make sure we can continue and nurture this language,” Keen says.

The end of the hour comes quickly. A group participant suggests another activity.

“So if anybody wants to stick around and do some extra stuff for another 5 minutes or so, there’s some stuff that we can do that’s kind of more interactive,” says David Sheakley. He’s running an exercise called Total Physical Response, or TPR.

“Instead of just listening to the words and saying them back, you actually have to act them out with your body. It makes connections between your muscles and muscle memory with what you hear and also with what you say,” Sheakley explains.

Nancy Keen holds out Tlingit flash cards. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

Sheakley’s family on his father’s side is all Tlingit. Many of them spoke the language and helped spread it. Now, Sheakley sees it as his responsibility.

Like Keen and Sheakley, some in the group are Alaska Native. Radford is not one of them

“I’m definitely European descended. There’s a term dleit káa that gets used sometimes,” he says.

But, as someone living in Alaska, he feels a responsibility to learn the local language.

“We live in a very multicultural state and sometimes people lose sight of that, myself included. I mean we live in Lingít Aaní and I think that we should be learning the language of this place,” Radford says.

Outside of the learners group and class, Radford says he speaks Tlingit “mostly to my cats. I talk to them a lot. I’ve branched out to humans, too.”

Most of the time, he speaks to other learners.

“When we see each other in public it’s pretty much required. We do things online, there are a lot of things on social media. Not as many public events, like we’d like to do this, ideally, every night of the week in town, have this keep going. This is just a Monday,” Radford says.

After the TPR exercise, the group session ends, but the conversation carries on.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: February 5, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-02-05 17:08

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

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Governor’s New Budget Cuts 300 State Employees

Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

The latest iteration of the governor’s budget cuts $136 million from the previous version

Training Nears For First Wave Of Armed Alaska VPSOs

Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

Village Public Safety Officers in Western Alaska will be participating in a pilot program that could make them the first VPSOs in the state to carry weapons in their job. They’re in the middle of psychological testing right now and seven experienced officers have advanced towards training.

U.S. Senators Try Again to Kill Vessel Discharge Regs

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Alaska fishermen have three years before the EPA is supposed to begin regulating deck wash, bilge water and other liquids discharged from small vessels.

Glory Hole Homeless Shelter Reopens After Repairs

Kevin Reagan, KTOO – Juneau

The Glory Hole Shelter and Soup Kitchen reopened its doors Wednesday morning after plumbing repairs closed down its headquarters for the last two months.

Yukon Quest Rookies Tout Knowledge, Experience Of Champions

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

Of the 26 mushers signed up to race dog teams in this year’s Yukon Quest International Sled Dog race, 10 are rookies. Many of them might be new to the race, but a few have trained dog teams and worked for a handful of well-known and champion long-distance mushers.

SeaLife Center Blind Seal Warms Trainers’ Hearts

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

A disabled harbor seal pup at Alaska Sea Life Center in Seward has learned a new trick.  Bryce, the blind baby seal, responds to sound and voice commands, and as KSKA’s Ellen Lockyer reports, trainers are teaching him  the behavior’s that may help him  find a permanent home.

Why Some Alaskans Are Learning The Tlingit Language

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

A group of people in Juneau spend an hour every Monday practicing Tlingit. They bring dictionaries and flashcards, look at handouts and do language exercises. But this isn’t a class.

Categories: Alaska News

Glory Hole Homeless Shelter Reopens After Repairs

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-02-05 17:03

Glory Hole staffer Mindy Lee serves the first meal at the shelter’s headquarters since the building shut down for repairs two months ago. (Photo by Kevin Reagan/KTOO)

The Glory Hole Shelter and Soup Kitchen reopened its doors Wednesday morning after plumbing repairs closed down its headquarters for the last two months.

Wednesday was move-in day for Mariya Lovishchuk at the Glory Hole.

The executive director of Juneau’s nonprofit homeless shelter has not worked at a desk of her own since a broken pipe flooded the building two months ago. Lovishchuk and her 10-person staff recently returned to their headquarters on Franklin Street to continue offering their full services.

“The transition period will be over pretty soon, it’s just really great to have the building back,” Lovishchuk says.

The shelter stayed in operation while its building was under repair. The Salvation Army and Holy Trinity Church helped the Glory Hole provide basic services to its regular patrons.

Lovishchuk says insurance covered most of the repair costs, and community donations allowed the Glory Hole building to undergo some much needed upgrades. New cabinet panels, kitchen stove and plumbing system were installed while the building was being serviced.

“Fortunately we have a lot of partners in the community and the state,” Lovishchuk says, “because of the help of our great partners it has not as been as horrible as it could have been.”

Lovishchuk’s staff prepared the first meal in the Glory Hole since re-opening on Wednesday to a crowd of about 20 people. On the menu was homemade chili and Subway sandwiches.

For Mike Davis, the chili wasn’t quite strong enough. He sprinkled some garlic salt on top — but it’s a ritual he does with all his food.

“Cold medicine is what it is actually,” says Davis, who has lived in Juneau since 1974.

Davis had been staying at Juneau International Hostel with other Glory Hole clients during the repairs. He doesn’t plan to stay in the shelter for very long but he’s glad to see it reopened for those who have nowhere else to go.

“I know it’s really important for a lot of these people,” Davis says. “They feel a lot more comfortable here, it’s a sense of security I guess.”

The Glory Hole is capable of housing 40 people at a time in its dormitories, and clients have been moving back in for the last couple of weeks.

With the building back in operation, Lovishchuk says it should be easier for the Glory Hole to continue its involvement with developing the capital city’s Housing First project to address chronic homelessness.

Categories: Alaska News

Governor’s New Budget Cuts 300 State Employees

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-02-05 16:57

The latest iteration of the governor’s budget cuts $136 million from the previous version. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

Suspense around Gov. Bill Walker’s budget started building on Wednesday. That morning, his budget director, Pat Pitney announced a budget was on its way, and warned the Senate finance committee the cuts would slash state spending by 9 percent over the previous year.

“The public discussion just based on these reductions are going to be loud. This will not be viewed as low hanging fruit.”

A few hours later, an e-mail from the governor went out to all state employees that alluded to layoffs and acknowledged the next few months would “undoubtedly be a time of uncertainty and stress.” Some legislators even stayed up until midnight, hoping to see the document.

Agency spending details finally dropped at noon on Thursday. The proposal identifies more than 300 positions for downsizing, with a quarter of those jobs coming from the university system. The Department of Corrections loses $12 million, with a cut to the community jails program. Grant programs and senior benefits also face cuts.

At a press conference, the governor described the decisions as difficult but necessary.

“At roughly a $10 million a day deficit, we had to do something,” said Walker. “We had to take some step forward.”

With 24,000 state employees on payroll, the proposed layoffs amount to one percent of the workforce. About half of those positions are currently vacant. Members of Walker’s cabinet have discussed the potential for buyouts or retirement incentives for senior state employees, but still needs to conduct an analysis to see if that would make sense.

When asked if further reductions are necessary, Walker described his budget as a starting point for legislators, but expressed concerned that dramatic layoffs could have a ripple effect through the state’s economy.

“Could we have cut deeper? Of course. Could we have cut less? Perhaps,” said Walker. “But it’s that sort of surgical, fine place to be so that we do it in such a way that we don’t create the tailspin we saw in the Eighties.”

Lawmakers are not expecting to have a good sense of the budget until Monday, after their finance analysts have had a chance to review the numbers. But House Finance Co-Chair Mark Neuman, a Republican from Big Lake, says they will be looking at the budget with an eye for further cuts, given the drop in state revenue from low oil prices.

“We have a $3.5 billion deficit, so we’re going to go through that. So, we’re going to go through the committee process, but I would expect some further reductions than that,” says Neuman.

State employee unions are trying to take the cuts in stride.

“You’re never satisfied with any layoffs, but the 300 number doesn’t seem to be all that large,” says Jim Duncan with the Alaska State Employees Association. “But it is important for those people who might fall within that — it’s a very critical situation.”

Duncan adds that layoffs are not final until the Legislature passes the budget and the governor signs it, and that the union has procedures in place for employees facing layoffs.

Meanwhile, groups that advocate for smaller government do not think the cuts go far enough.

“We’re of the belief that the governor failed to take aggressive action in substantially reduced unrestricted general fund spending, and it is our hope that the Legislature will have the courage to do what Gov. Walker refused to do,” says Jeremy Price, the state director for Americans for Prosperity’s Alaska chapter.

Walker has until February 18 to finalize his budget, and says that adjustments are possible if the administration finds other potential cuts.

Categories: Alaska News

SeaLife Center Blind Seal Warms Trainers’ Hearts

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-02-05 15:35

Bryce, the eight-month-old harbor seal, is a special resident at the Alaska SeaLife Center. After being rescued in August, the workers at the rescue center discovered he had a very unique quality. He was blind. Since then, they have trained him using auditory commands while they look for a permanent home for the young seal.

Categories: Alaska News

U.S. Senators Try Again to Kill Vessel Discharge Regs

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-02-05 14:26

Alaska fishermen have three years before the EPA is supposed to begin regulating deck wash, bilge water and other liquids discharged from small vessels. U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski this week introduced a bill to permanently block the regulation for commercial vessels under 79 feet. Senate co-sponsors include Alaska’s Dan Sullivan, and California Democrat Barbara Boxer.

The threat of the looming discharge regulation frustrates owners of commercial boats from Alaska to Florida. Robert Zales, president of the National Association of Charter Boat Operators, let his exasperation show in testimony at a recent U.S. Senate hearing.

“How, how do I — I can’t even give you an answer to that question on how much rain runs off my deck on a particular day. It’s rainwater that would’ve hit the water if it hadn’t hit my boat, so what is the purpose?” fumed Zales, who runs a fishing charter business in Panama City.

Murkowski and Boxer nearly won a permanent exemption for small boats last year. But owners of bigger vessels objected, saying the exemption should cover their ballast water discharge, too. Boxer says ballast water poses more danger to marine ecosystems because it can carry invasive species from port to port.

Categories: Alaska News

Mat Su Behavioral Health Report Reveals Lack of Services

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-02-05 13:32

A new report released by the Mat Su Health Foundation indicates that behavioral health services in the Matanuska Susitna Borough are woefully inadequate. The report, the first of three, suggests that residents are not accessing care until they are in a crisis situation.  

The report, issued in late January, presents some disturbing statistics. It focuses on a crisis response system that falls far short of meeting current needs. Elizabeth Ripley is executive director of the Mat Su Health Foundation, which operates Mat Su Regional Medical Center. Ripley says the hospital is doing double duty:

“Even thought is doesn’t offer psychiatric services, it is the number one purveyor of mental health care in our community.”]

Ripley says the hospital’s emergency room is handling thousands –2300 cases alone in 2013 — of drug and alcohol cases a year .  Cases the hospital is not equipped to deal with,

“Our emergency department sees five times the number of behavioral health visits than our community mental health center.”

And the cost? Mat Su Regional Hospital charged services totaling 23 million dollars in 2013, and much of that went unpaid, due to inadequate insurance coverage, or no insurance coverage at all, on the part of the patients.

 Mat Su Health Foundation conducted a health needs assessment for the Mat Su area a couple of years ago. That survey pointed to alcohol and substance abuse, and mental issues, collectively referred to as behavioral health, as the top health concern in the Mat Su. Data was collected from 65 interviews with crisis responders in all fields.. health, law enforcement and first responders… and through public forums:

“And we heard at these forums that people were waiting 90 to 120 days, particularly children, to get a mental health appointment. We heard from adults about the struggles of accessing care specific to mental health or substance abuse services. And we chose to look at the crisis response system specifically, because when you look at why are people presenting to the emergency department, it shows where or how they might not be accessing services in the community to prevent the crisis. ”

The report’s results are not encouraging: behavioral health impacts the community in a variety of ways.. all of them negative. Here’s a few facts that leap out:

Alcohol and drug abuse is a factor in half of Mat Su suicides and homicides.  20 percent of Mat Su high school students said they have considered suicide. Mat Su’s suicide death rate is twice the national rate. And, crisis response adds 1.6 million dollars to law enforcement costs.

 Don Bennice is CEO of Alaska Family Services, which provides alcohol and drug abuse programs in Palmer. Bennice praises the report as the first time the needs have been clearly outlined. He says the Valley’s rapidly changing demographics has brought its share of problems.

“I think there’s quite a bit of services provided in the Valley, it just hasn’t been coordinated real well. And this survey is helping us to identify where we need to move and shift things around to cover the need. The funding has been kind of a difficult issue to deal with, because it has been pretty much sporadic in terms of how it has been applied. And I think that is what is going to happen is that funding will decrease, but yet the population of the Valley is increasing, so that by itself creates a huge problem.”


The report’s findings agree with Bennice : funding, or the lack of it, is a contributing factor.

 Elizabeth Ripley says the state Department of Health and Social Services is responsible for providing behavioral health services through state operated programs. The agency’s Division of Behavioral Health provides grants designed to address community needs for crisis response, but Ripley says, the grant system is not working for Mat Su.

“In Mat Su we hold 12 to 13 percent of the state’s population, and yet we receive four percent of the share of community based behavioral health funding. And so Mat Su is not adequately resourced by the state. In the last fifteen years our population has doubled from fifty thousand to almost one hundred thousand people, but the funding for our community mental health center has stayed flat.”

Albert Wall, director of the Department of Behavioral Health, says he’s read the report and appreciates the work Mat Su Health Foundation has put into research and assessment. Wall says that DBH is looking for ways to improve service delivery in the state. He says that there are many challenges the state takes into account when awarding grants, like the high cost of service in rural areas, but that
“a strict population approach is not the most effective method of making grant determinations.” Wall says Mat Su’s rapid growth will be taken into account in coming grant cycle, and that he looks forward to working with Mat Su providers on the issue.

 Ripley also points out that expansion of Medicaid services could help the more than 2000 Mat Su residents who have some type of mental illness and would be eligible for Medicaid under the ACA.

She says, until the problem of funding is solved, the status quo won’t change.

“Right now, the emergency room physicians at Mat Su Regional essentially have two places they can send someone.. home or to Alaska Psychiatric Institute.”

Ripley says Mat Su Regional only has two beds to serve psychiatric patients. When they are filled, others in need are diverted to the  Anchorage facility.




Categories: Alaska News

Training Nears For First Wave Of Armed Alaska VPSOs

APRN Alaska News - Thu, 2015-02-05 12:17

YK Delta VPSOs spoke with DPS officials about the process of arming VPSOs during training in Bethel. (Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK)

Village Public Safety Officers in Western Alaska will be participating in a pilot program that could make them the first VPSOs in the state to carry weapons in their job. Seven experienced officers are in the middle of psychological evaluations right now and are advancing towards training.

About a year after the legislature passed a law to allow VPSOs to carry a gun, a handful of Western Alaska communities should have trained officers on the job with firearms. A pilot project to arm the first VPSOs has seven candidates who are in the middle of intensive psychological testing before they advance to training. Captain Andrew Merrill is the Alaska State Troopers’ Commander of the VPSO program.

“This pilot project will help us design and review the training process we use, to look at the selection process to determine if it’s too strict or too loose, and to figure out exactly what works best to provide the safe service to communities and keep our VPSOs safe throughout the region,” said Merrill.

Captain Andrew Merrill, the state’s VPSO commander, speaks with YK Delta VPSOs in regular training. Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK.

KYUK spoke with law enforcement officials in Bethel this week for regular training. In 2014 the Alaska legislature passed a law allowing VPSOs to carry guns, in addition to a taser and baton. It was spurred by the death of a VPSO in Manokotak, Thomas Madole, who was shot and killed while unarmed. In many communities, VPSOs are the only law enforcement and work without backup.

Four of the seven prospective armed VPSOs will be in communities served by the Association of Village Council Presidents Villages, or AVCP, plus one each in Bristol Bay, the Interior, and the Northwest Arctic Borough. Merrill isn’t saying which communities right now, due to the intense pressure on the candidates to succeed in the evaluations.

Merrill says they started with the “best of the best” for candidates. The VPSO, the community, and the non-profit employer have all agreed to move ahead. To make it to training, candidates have to pass a physical test, which includes push-ups, sitting and running, go through intensive background checks, pass a written psychological test, and an in-person evaluation with a psychologist. They’re ultimately reviewed by a three-person panel of trooper officials who will make a recommendation to the colonel in charge of all state troopers, about who advances to intensive firearms training.

Officials are planning the 21-day course in March at the trooper academy in Sitka for training on topics including weapons ethics, use of deadly force, and simulations. Merrill says that training on use of force builds on years of preparing troopers for rural Alaska law enforcement.

“What options are available to use in different situations based on the totality of what’s happening. How does that best apply to resolving the situation as safely as possible? Regarding the use of force, it’s governed by statute: you use deadly force in defense of yourself or others in life threatening or serious injury situations,” said Merrill.

Troopers play a key role in training. The VPSOs will use the same .40 caliber Glock pistol that troopers carry and each VPSO will be paired with a state trooper for experience in an urban part of the state. The trooper will also spend time in the VPSO’s community for observation and training following the Sitka training.

“Once we do that, we’ll roll through the mentorship process and observations, and evaluation of how it’s working. The anticipation is that around the same time next year, we’ll roll into another class. We’ll do another transition course, maybe with adaptions, maybe we did it right, it was perfect, but we’ll adapt it and make it work. We’ll go through that next cycle,” said Merrill.

Originally 21 candidates were ready to move through the program, but Merrill says 14 have dropped out due to a personal reasons or not being able to meet physical fitness standards.

“What this has done is opened the conversation to consider can I emotionally do this? Can I use deadly force if I needed to? Some think they can, but realize the aftermath of that of living and working in a small community of 300 or 400 and knowing and being related to some of them could be devastating, so they’ve chosen to not participate at this time, but may in the future,” said Merrill.

Alvin Jimmie is the AVCP VPSO program director, the employer of the VPSOs. He emphasizes teamwork and collaboration in the coming months.

“Working cohesively together as a team to establish the pros and cons, that’s the best way to approach it, from my perspective, look at the pros and cons and concentrate on the pros and move on with those” said Jimmie.

The VPSO’s anticipated graduation from the academy is April 3rd.

Categories: Alaska News

Before Releasing Budget Details, Walker Warns Of Layoffs

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-02-04 20:48

Gov. Bill Walker plans to release the details of his revised operating budget on Thursday.

Budget director Pat Pitney previewed some of the cuts before the Senate Finance Committee on Wednesday.

“The operating budget you have here will be smaller by over $100 million,” said Pitney.

Pitney said the cuts are significant, with a target of a 9 percent reduction in total state spending across the operating and capital budgets over the previous year. The new operating budget includes a reorganization of the Department of Administration, reductions to the community jails program, changes to the senior benefits payment program, and cuts to grant programs.

“The public discussion just based on these reductions are going to be loud,” says Pitney. “This will not be viewed as low hanging fruit.”

To prepare state workers for the release, the governor sent an e-mail across agencies acknowledging that the next few months will “undoubtedly be a time of uncertainty and stress.” Walker wrote that the goal was to “reduce the footprint of State government to a sustainable level,” and that staff reductions were necessary as a result.

A follow-up e-mail from the head of a public employees union, the Alaska Supervisory Bargaining Unit, specified that over 300 positions are being considered for cuts. Of those, 270 a full-time, and only half are currently filled. The letter also emphasized that final layoff numbers will not be known until April, when the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn.

The state government employs 24,000 workers across Alaska, according to the Legislative Finance Division.

Categories: Alaska News

Point in Time Count gives snapshot of homelessness in Anchorage but not whole picture

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-02-04 17:50
Each year communities across the nation participate in the Point in Time Count during the last 10 days in January. They’re trying to take a snapshot of homelessness by asking how many people slept on the streets or in shelters during one specific night. But the count only shows part of the picture. At about 6 am on a Wednesday morning on the streets near the Brother Francis Shelter, Monica Stoesser walks up to a group of people shivering on the sidewalk. “We’re doing a survey of people who are utilizing homeless services to collect some information,” she tells them. “So that we can better help serve people who need some assistance.” Rebecca Paulson agrees to participate. “So do you mind if I ask where you slept last night?” Stoesser says. “At sleep off.” Stoesser scratches the pen on the long survey sheet. “Oh! This pen might not be working either.” Stoesser’s pen, like the three others she’s tried, is frozen. Temperatures dropped to about one degree over night. Stoesser is trying to complete the mandatory annual Point in Time Count. She wants to know things like if a person is a veteran and what resources they’ve used recently. The data helps the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) get an idea of how many people are living on the streets. HUD officials say the count has some influence on how much funding different organizations receive, though they use other data as well. They host the count in January because it’s cold, and people who have no other resources, like friends or relatives, are more likely to reach out to different service providers. Paulson has been living on the streets for about four years. She says she used to have a full-time job, and when she became homeless, she had no idea what resources were available to her. “And it was very hard. I’d go two weeks without a shower. Doing what I can to keep clean, you know? Go to the library, use the bathroom, wash my face, clean up what I can.” Paulson says she uses some services, like free showers and soup kitchens, but not others. She knows it’s up to her to follow up with organizations for substance abuse treatment and help searching for a job. She says the experience is humbling. “I’ll be walking down the street and some people won’t look you in the eye at all. You don’t feel human, you know…” After getting some pencils, the survey group heads up a hill to a couple of tents perched on a narrow ledge by a chain link fence. Robert, who didn’t want to give his last name, emerges from a large tent tucked in a far corner, his brown curly hair ruffled from a night of sleep. He’s using his friend’s tent because he’s not allowed at St. Francis Shelter for three days. He had a misunderstanding over chore duties. It’s his third time being homeless in six years. The young man says the common stories told about homelessness are only part of the picture. “And then you got a lot of people saying everyone’s addicts or everyone’s drinking. It’s not true. They think we’re all one big group of monstrosities. But some of us are actually out here trying to get out of this mess.” Robert puffs on a cigar as he says he’s applied for hundreds of jobs online and in person. He was a dishwasher and a janitor for years before his bosses sold the business and he lost his job. But he says it’s hard to get work when you don’t have a home, and people won’t pay attention to your application. “We get discouraged. It’s like, if people would just give us a chance to prove ourselves, it would be different.” He pauses. “It’s proving ourselves, like giving us one day of work, just one so, we can show what we’re capable of.” Later in the day and through out the rest of the week, a group from Covenant House walks around town looking for young people. Josh Louwerse says they’re having trouble getting kids to take the survey this year. “I think kids just don’t like surveys. Which honestly, I think is a good thing because they aren’t willing to just give out their information readily.” Louwerse says the Point In Time Count doesn’t get an accurate picture of youth experiencing homelessness because it doesn’t count people who are couch surfing with friends or even strangers. And he says it’s often hard to identify homeless youth because they don’t want to be identified. “So we have, you know, two thousand kids that are homeless in the school district and they go to school everyday and they want to go to school everyday. And they don’t want their peers to know that they’re homeless. So they work as hard as they can to come to school and have different clothes and try to be ready to go. High school is tough enough, so if you don’t have a good home situation you can kind of get isolated.” Louwerse says Covenant House reached out to 1,800 at risk or homeless youth last year. But he says the solution for ending homelessness can’t just come from the services participating in the count. “Youth get to us because they’ve lost their community. They’ve burned bridges, or they just didn’t have a good one to start with. And so part of making things better will look like us as a community coming around. All of us.” Data from this year’s count will be released later this year. In 2014,organizations counted 1,785 people experiencing homelessness.
Categories: Alaska News