APRN Alaska News
Five independent candidates are challenging five incumbents for seats on Sealaska’s board of directors. The election is quieter than last year’s, but not without controversy.
Sealaska’s board reorganized after last year’s election under a new president, Juneau’s Joe Nelson. A new CEO, Anthony Mallott, took the helm around the same time, and some other top officials have been replaced.
But there’s still plenty of conflict over the Southeast regional Native corporation’s practices. That includes five straight years of business losses.
The incumbents say the corporation is healthy. And they express confidence shared by Mallott, who says Sealaska is headed in the right direction.
“That’s financial progress. That’s strong operational platforms. That’s comfort that we can create increasing benefit for our shareholders,” he said in a recent interview.
Two incumbent board candidates live in Juneau. Nelson is a University of Alaska Southeast official. Barbara Cadiente-Nelson is a grants administrator and tribal government treasurer.
Former state senator and longtime board chairman Albert Kookesh of Angoon is another incumbent. So are former state representative and fisherman Bill Thomas of Haines and attorney Tate London of Bothell, Washington.
Most of the challengers are critical of the corporation’s programs and business operations.
Two of the five independent candidates are from Juneau. Karen Taug is a controller and former board chairwoman of an urban Native corporation. Brad Fluetsch is an investment adviser and former Alaska Native Brotherhood Grand Camp president.
Ray Austin of Albuquerque, New Mexico, who works in information technology, is also running as an independent candidate. So are social service program manager Catherine Edwards of Woodland Hills, California, and Yakutat Tlingit Tribe office manager Ralph Wolfe, a former Sealaska youth board member.
In addition to the incumbents, several of the challengers have run before.
One not on this year’s ballot is Mick Beasley, the independent with the highest vote count in last year’s election. He says three times is enough.
“You don’t want to get toxic. You want people to believe what they say. So to go and ask people repeatedly and repeatedly, I just don’t think that’s proper,” he said.
Also missing this year is an opposition slate.
Carton Smith, a Juneau real estate company owner, was one of the four. He may run again in the future, but not this year.
“My concern last year was that the corporation was reeling for the losses posted in the 2013 financials. And now there’s new management, so let’s see what they can do,” he said.
Taug is the only member of that group running this year.
Many of Sealaska’s approximately 22,000 shareholders have already cast their proxy ballots. Results will be announced at Sealaska’s annual meeting, June 27 in Juneau.
Alaska’s Orthodox Bishop, David Mahaffey was in Unalaska last week. He has held his post in Alaska for just over a year. He said in that time, he’s placed more focus on work with the Regional Alcohol and Drug Abuse Counselor Training Program, or RADACT, to address issues of substance and alcohol abuse and domestic violence.
“They’re doing more with our seminarians so that when they graduate,” he said. “When they go back to villages, they are better equipped to deal with people with these issues. I have petitioned the governor to have more VPSO’s in the villages.”
But Bishop David said it’s unclear how successful that petition may be in light of cuts to the state’s budget.
Bishop David said there was something particularly special about his visit to the cathedral in Unalaska, one of the oldest in the country. A chapel in the church is dedicated to St. Innocent, who served as the first Orthodox bishops in the state beginning in 1840.
“When I came here and walked in the doors of this cathedral, the feeling that I had of just the overwhelming presence of St. Innocent and that was to me so spiritually uplifting,” he said. “I would have been happy to not do anything else, but stand in the church all day. This cathedral has that effect on me.”
Bishop David came to Alaska from Pennsylvania first in 2012. He still grapples with the distance.
“I heard something the other day… a man was telling a story about a man who wanted to be a missionary but his wife didn’t want to go where he wanted to go and he kept saying ‘well, I either pick her for a wife or I go to this country to be a missionary,’” explained the Bishop. “He said it wasn’t until her realized he wasn’t picking between the woman and the country, he was picking between the woman and God and I kind of thought ‘yes, that’s what I was doing. I was saying Pennsylvania or Alaska when I should have been saying ‘Pennsylvania or God?’” he said.
Bishop David said he doesn’t regret his decision. He was in Unalaska to mark the Feast of the Ascension. In Russian Orthodox tradition, the celebration takes place 40 days after Easter.
Bishop David also made visits to other Aleutian chain communities including Adak and Nikolski.
Lisa Unin, a resident of Chevak, has received an award from the Rasmuson Foundation for her traditional Cup’ik parkas.
Using this money, Unin will make two full-sized parkas.
When she found out she’d received the award, Lisa Unin felt shocked.
“At first I couldn’t swallow it because I didn’t expect to get an award. Later on I was getting excited and more excited,” said Unin.
Unin, a resident of Chevak, received a Rasmuson Project Award of $7,500. Using this money Unin will make two full-sized parkas. She will speak with elders on how they make the traditional Alaska Native jackets. Once her parkas are completed, Unin will donate them to Alaska museums.
The sealskin and seal gut parkas will be the first Unin will make large enough for a person. Unin typically makes miniature clothes for the dolls her husband makes. She started making these around the age of thirty.
Jayson Smart, with the Rasmuson Foundation, says they choose to give Unin a Project Award because of her commitment to preserving Native culture.
“Overall I think that the panel who reviewed her application was really struck by her commitment to looking at this specific art form and evaluating the importance of trying to keep it alive and supporting somebody like Lisa who’s incredibly skilled at what she does as a skin sewer and in this traditional art form,” said Smart.
The Rasmuson Foundation works to improve the quality of life in Alaska through art. Each year Rasmuson names twenty-five Project Awards, ten Fellows, and one Distinguished Artist. Unin shared the Project Awards with a variety of different types of artists, from traditional Native craftspeople to classical musicians to contemporary sculptors.
The Marine Stewardship Council will facilitate mediation for the salmon processors who disagree about who can participate in the client group that has the council’s sustainability certification. Back in April, ten of Alaska’s major salmon buyers asked to rejoin the label they dropped in 2012, saying it will help them tap back into picky European markets.
Chris Hladick, the state’s new commissioner of commerce, community and economic development, said the department is keeping an eye on the process.
“They will provide a mediator in Seattle between the groups,” Hladick said. “APSA is the group that has the MSC certification, and then there’s a host of other processors that want to join in to the MSC certificate so they can sell their fish in Europe this summer.”
Alaska Governor Bill Walker sent a letter to the MSC on May 18 about the issue. Hladick said the state doesn’t have a role in the mediation process, and doesn’t plan to apply for certification right now.
“The letter was sent strictly to try to get some movement on the issue,” Hladick said. “Of course the issue is, for the state of Alaska, we want to sell salmon.”
Hladick says the European markets are important for selling Alaskan fish, particularly given the strong runs forecast this summer.
A 52-year-old Fairbanks man has been taken into custody on suspicion of attempted arson and domestic assault.
Alaska State Troopers say the man, who has not been formally charged, was taken into custody Monday.
Police just after 4 a.m. took a 911 call reporting someone pouring gasoline around a structure that was occupied.
Troopers arrested the man and he’s being held without bail at Fairbanks Correctional Center.
Online court documents Tuesday say charging documents are pending.
According to reports from the Alaska Department of Labor and the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of the City and Borough of Juneau is declining.
The Juneau Empire reports that The Alaska Department of Labor report states that the population declined by four people from 2013-2014. The federal figures released last week showed a decline of 220 people.
Also during that time, Alaska posted its first population decline since the oil bust of the mid-1980s. The state report shows the state lost 61 people, largely due to deaths outpacing births. The federal report showed the state losing 527 residents.
The difference between estimates is due to variations in the way the figures are calculated.
According to state estimates, only the Anchorage/Mat-Su and Gulf Coast regions of the state posted population gains.
Nome Superior Court Judge Timothy Dooley has been accused of violating the Alaska Code of Judicial Conduct.
The Alaska Dispatch News reports a complaint filed with the Commission on Judicial Conduct Tuesday states that Dooley made statements that were insensitive to victims, witnesses and other parties during court proceedings.
Executive director of the commission, Marla Greenstein, says the agency began investigating Dooley after receiving a few anonymous complaints.
According to the accusations, Dooley’s statements violate the Alaska Code on Judicial Conduct and state statutes including being patient and dignified, maintaining professional competence, and acting without bias or prejudice, among other aspects.
Dooley was appointed to his position by former Gov. Sean Parnell in March 2013.
Dooley’s attorney, William Satterberg, did not immediately return a request for comment.
Sen. John McCain is leading a U.S. Senate delegation that will visit Vietnam and Singapore this week.
The Arizona Republican is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and his office says the trip is being made at a critical time for U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific region.
McCain’s office says Sens. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Joni Ernst of Iowa and Dan Sullivan of Alaska also are making the trip, while Sens. Cory Gardner of Colorado and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii will join the delegation in Singapore.
According to McCain’s office, the delegation plans to meet with government officials and others in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City while in Vietnam.
The senators will participate in a meeting of defense ministers and other policy makers while in Singapore.
A man accused of killing his girlfriend in Bethel over the weekend was arraigned today.
24-year-old Justine Paul appeared by video from the Yukon Kuskokwim Correctional Center.
Judge Bruce Ward asked him if he understood the charges:
“Do you understand what the charges are against you Mr. Paul?” said Ward.
“Yes,” said Paul
“Murder in the First Degree – possible penalty range up to 99 years in jail and up to a $500-thousand dollar fine, do you understand?” said Ward.
“Yes,” said Paul.
“There’s a minimum of 20 years, do you understand that?” said Ward.
” … What?” said Paul.
“A minimum of 20 years if you are convicted, do you understand?” said Ward.
“Alright,” said Paul.
Court documents filed by the Bethel Police Department, describe a gory scene along a boardwalk at a community park where his girlfriend, 23-year-old Eunice Whitman, was found stabbed to death early Sunday morning. Investigators say a witness saw Paul with blood on his clothing.
During his arraignment, Paul said he was released from jail in January. An attorney with the state noted that Paul was convicted in 2010 of attempted sexual assault in the second degree and that he had three probation violations since then. He asked for bail to be set at $500-thousand dollars. Judge Ward agreed and set a preliminary hearing date for Paul on June 5th in Bethel.
Family members of Whitman appeared in court to witness the arraignment, but a spokesperson for the family said they did not want to make a statement to the media at this time.
The House’s Republican Majority is moving forward with a contingency plan to tap the rainy day account without Democratic support. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.
The bill offered Tuesday executes an accounting trick that makes it easier to access the state’s $10 billion constitutional budget reserve. That reserve is governed by byzantine rules that require a three-quarter vote when the state has money available to it in other funds, but require only a majority vote when the reserve is the largest source of spendable dollars available to the Legislature.
This is where the Permanent Fund comes in. Because the Fund’s investment earnings are in an account separate from the Fund’s corpus and are legally available for the Legislature to spend, that money triggers a three-quarter vote on the budget reserve. But if you move that money to the corpus of the Permanent Fund, it basically gets locked up and can only be spent through a vote of the people. With that money no longer spendable, the Legislature only needs a majority vote to access the rainy day fund.
Speaking on APRN’s Talk of Alaska, House Speaker Mike Chenault stressed that this plan would not draw money from the Permanent Fund to plug the state’s multi-billion-dollar deficit.
“There’s no money out of the earnings reserve going to pay for government,” said Chenault.
The bill before the House works as a failsafe against government shutdown. It would only move the earnings reserve money if the Legislature fails get a three-quarter vote by June 30 — the Legislature’s last day to reach a budget compromise before the state government partially shuts down. On top of shifting $5 billion from the earnings reserve to inflation-proof the corpus, the bill would also move money from the higher education investment fund into another account on the shutdown deadline.
Democrats oppose the move, describing it as a sleight of hand.
“It is an accounting gimmick to try to get around working with us in a bipartisan manner that reflects the spectrum of Alaskans,” said House Minority Leader Chris Tuck.
For weeks, the Legislature has been at an impasse, with Democrats seeking increased education funding, Medicaid expansion, and cost-of-living increases for public employees as part of a budget deal.
Tuck also expressed concern that shifting the funds could affect dividends in bad years for the national economy. In a letter circulated by the House Majority, the Alaska Permanent Fund Corporation’s chief financial officer wrote that the transfer should not have an impact on dividend payouts in typical or even weak years, but also made the caveat that projections do not always match the market performance.
Concern over the dividend has also caused some skittishness within the Republican House Majority. Last week, six members of that caucus signed a letter stating their opposition to the idea.
Lawmakers have until June 1 to find a way to fully fund their budget before pink slips are sent to thousands of state employees.
Federal officials say in 2014 they intercepted nearly ten times as much heroin coming into Alaska than in 2013. The growing use of the drug is impacting urban and rural areas. This is the first in a series of three stories about the impacts of heroin in Bethel and how the community is fighting it. It begins with one woman’s struggle to get clean in Bethel.
Don’t be fooled by Tracy Faulkner’s 5’4” frame. The small brunette with thick hair and the nickname malaggai, which means “fur hat” in Yup’ik, is a former wrestling champion.
She competed against boys in high school, going all the way to state and national competition. But in her off time she hid a dark secret.
“When I wasn’t training I would go and use — steal my parents’ booze, you know, find weed. It eventually progressed to taking pills,” said Faulkner.
That started when she was 12. One semester into college drugs started taking a priority over schoolwork. She dropped out and returned to Bethel where she tried school again, but her drug use intervened. She started a food truck business, but couldn’t maintain that either. That’s when Faulkner’s need for escape escalated.
“I got addicted to Tramadol – started taking that, eventually it wasn’t doing the trick for me anymore – I wanted that same high which I first got in the beginning. Then went to Oxycontin, and then went to using heroin,” said Faulkner.
Faulkner smoked it. Others inject. She couldn’t hold a job and was stealing to support her habit. Each high, or ‘nifty’ as they’re called, cost $100 here.
There are no treatment programs specifically for heroin addiction in Bethel. Treatment centers in Anchorage have waiting lists. Rick Robb is Bethel’s Mayor and also runs residential facilities for the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation. “It seems like a few years ago it would be non-existent to rare, but now we’re seeing full-blown heroin and we’re seeing it more and more. So the numbers are definitely increasing,” said Robb.
YKHC’s behavioral health division offers outpatient and inpatient treatment for those struggling to get off drugs and alcohol. But there are only 16 beds at the local center and they’re not equipped to handle heroin withdrawal. Sometimes, Robb says, people endure the painful process in the hospital emergency room or at home.
“People can come in if they have a problem, and we’re gonna do the best we can with the resources we have to get people the help they need. I think we have to. There’s some emphasis on us. We have to improve our programing specifically for heroin and we have to learn more about it,” said Robb.
Faulkner says she distinctly remembers the day this winter when she gazed out the window at a friend’s house and realized she wanted to make a change.
“I remember looking out on the river and just seeing everybody living life and I was stuck in this dark place,” said Faulkner.
But with no detox facility in Bethel, Faulkner realized it would have to be cold turkey. She reached out to an uncle for help. He cared for her as she went through withdrawal.
“You get sick to your bones, I mean you want to crawl out of your skin. You lay in bed all day. You have the shakes, the sweats, you know. You’re puking, out the other end, you know it’s bad to where I couldn’t get out of bed,” said Faulkner.
After detox at home, she was ready to check herself into the local treatment program run by YKHC. But it wasn’t an easy process. YKHC told her it could take weeks to get an assessment necessary to access treatment. Instead of waiting she got the assessment at a local primary care clinic and was able to check in to in-patient treatment through YKHC within a few days. Robb, with YKHC, says he knows they need to do a better job of getting patients quickly into treatment. Now Faulkner is done with her treatment program. She says she gains strength from her ancestors and from her young son, who she says deserves to grow up in a healthy environment.
“It’s our younger generation that’s going to be most affected by this. I mean, our heritage, our culture is gonna be lost. For me, looking at my own child, I don’t want him to grow up in this kind of community. I want him to grow up in the community that I was raised in. Where we showed love for each other, where we cared for each other, where we stood as one,” said Faulkner.
Faulkner says she knows she’s in a unique position to help unite people in the region around the issue, and now that she’s clean that will be her focus.
For weeks, the Alaska Legislature has been wrestling with how to cover its multi-billion-dollar budget deficit. Now one Juneau man has a modest proposal for them: Try crowdfunding? APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez has this story.
For Geoff Kirsch, following the Alaska State Legislature has been like watching the last seasons of Lost. It’s confusing, and frustrating, but you just want to stick it out for the end — which, in this case, is the passage of the budget.
“That’s like their one job, and they haven’t done that,” says Kirsch.
Since the Legislature ended their regular session, they’ve been stuck on their spending bill. They’ve been at an impasse over tapping the state’s rainy day account, which requires a three-quarter vote, and lawmakers have been retreading the same ground in their public meetings, in their talking points, and — by most accounts — their negotiations with each other.
So, Kirsch wondered if Alaskans could take action into their own hands. A few days ago, he launched a campaign to cover the deficit through the website GoFundMe, where people can contribute to causes they like.
“If it works for Veronica Mars and Reading Rainbow, then it certainly might work for Alaska,” says Kirsch.
At $3 billion, the goal is a little higher than most campaigns.
“It comes out to like, $4,000 per person that they would would have to contribute in order for the campaign to work,” says Kirsch.
It’s kind of like voluntary taxation. And given how popular the idea of taxation is in Alaska, it shouldn’t be too shocking that the campaign isn’t raking in cash. But it’s gone better than Kirsch has expected.
“So far, someone has contributed $50, and that wasn’t even me!”
Of course, the point is more to raise awareness of the political situation than to raise money.
Kirsch used to do work for Comedy Central, and still writes political satire. The description says the Legislature’s message to Alaskans has been “to go fund themselves,” and Kirsch encourages Alaskans to turn the budgetary shortfall into budgetary “shortfall-ade.” It’s obvious he had fun with the idea.
But as the husband to a state employee — whom, full disclosure, this reporter knows socially — Kirsch says the budget stalemate is serious. If an agreement is not reached by July 1, up to 15,000 state workers will be laid off.
“People are going to lose money, and people are going to lose health insurance,” says Kirsch. “There’s nothing funny about that.”
But then again, a lot of humor is rooted in tragedy anyway. So, Kirsch is going to take this fundraiser to its logical extreme.
“I really do think I am going to present a big, oversize novelty check to Gov. Walker, if he lets me do that,” says Kirsch. “I don’t know if I need to make an appointment, or if I can just show up with it.”
A spokesperson for the governor said he is “open to discussions on all forms of revenue,” but that they “need to check with their ethics attorneys about whether [they] could take the money.”
A lawsuit between Nome neighbors that centered on noise and odor from one household’s dog lot has been dismissed—and is no longer set to go before a jury this summer.
Since 2012 neighbors Kevin Bopp and wife Lynn DeFilippo have been in a legal tussle with mushers Nils Hahn and wife and mushing partner Diana Haecker.
The neighbors claim the sound and odor of the mushers’ dog lot is a nuisance that makes living next door unbearable; the mushers counter that they’re simply running a dog kennel in rural Alaska. It’s all complicated by the fact that the homes in question are in an unincorporated subdivision six miles outside of town where the City of Nome’s rules don’t apply.
Escalating tensions led Hahn and Haecker to lead the charge on declaring Alaska a “Right to Mush” state last year. It’s all complicated by the fact that the homes in question are in an unincorporated subdivision six miles outside of town where the City of Nome’s rules don’t apply.
The conflict came to a head last month when Kotzebue Judge Paul Roteman ruled the mushers’ dog lot—both in terms of sound and odor—would be acceptable to a “reasonable person.” The case was then set to go before a jury in June—until all four parties agreed to dismiss the case, with prejudice, earlier this month.
“And the with prejudice means that no lawsuit regarding dog noise, or dog odors, or any of the other related complaints touched on in this lawsuit can be brought again in the future.”
That’s Bethel attorney Myron Angstman, who represented mushers Hahn and Haecker in the case. (The attorney for Bopp and Deflippo did not return messages asking for comment.) Angstman says another important part of the settlement is an option for mushers Hahn and Haecker to buy Bopp’s property at what he calls a “fair market” price.
Hahn says—after the judge ruled his dogs could stay put unless a jury decides otherwise—purchasing the land is a clear way forward.
“I think it’s the best option for both parties. You know, I can speak for myself, it’s certainly the best option for us, to buy the land and we offer Mr. Bopp above market value, so, I think that’s the way to go.”
For Bopp, settling simply came down to rising legal fees—fees he says would have ballooned through weeks of trial. Now he’s dropping the case without any changes to a situation he says made life “unbearable” at home.
“I made a decision because of the money, mainly. I don’t want to spend any more. And its really tiring going to court. Haha. Now this suit has beat me with money, so, I really can’t say much as come out in my favor.”
The “pending contract” for mushers Hahn and Haecker to buy Bopp’s property hinges on him relocating his house elsewhere. Bopp says that’s easier said than done in Nome’s tight housing market—but the settlement gives him a one-year window to complete the move.
Also part of the settlement: both parties agree to pay their own attorney fees—fees now running to thousands of dollars after years of court filings and legal maneuvering. Attorney Angstman says that’s no small concession—given that the losing side of a lawsuit can be ordered by the court to pay some or all of the other party’s attorney fees.
Warm, mostly dry weather continues across much of the eastern interior, and that has fire managers concerned about future growth of the Seventy Mile fire in the eastern interior. It’s so far burning in remote country, north of the Seventy Mile River and away from the community of Eagle. Alaska Fire Service spokesman Sam Harrel says a planned burn out operation would blacken an area of heavy timber along the river to protect values on the other side.
“There are a couple of allotments and cabins in the area, but they are on the opposite side of the Seventy Mile Rivers from the fire.”
Harrel says smokejumpers on scene will take advantage of favorable conditions to burn out the area in case a future wind shift pushes the fire back toward the river and the Eagle area. He says another group of smokejumpers are protecting a homestead along the Yukon River at Trout Creek, near where another wildfire is burning.
“A lot of people will know this area along Trout Creek as the Sager Homestead. It’s a hospitality stop along the Yukon Quest Trail, and we have a group of smokejumpers in there with cabin protection on that but, that fire is still a good bit away from the cabin.”
The Trout and Seventy Mile fires are among four started by lightning in the Eagle area Sunday. Harrel says additional dry thunder storms in the region Monday are expected to yield more fires.
“There were over 500 lightning strikes around the state, a lot of them in that area, and the eastern Brooks Range, and so we’ll be patrolling to see if we can see any fires.”
The Alaska Interagency Coordination Center reported Tuesday, that 167 wildfires in Alaska so far this year, had burned about 6,500 acres.
The muskrat population across much of Alaska appears to be on the rise.
The fur-bearing rodent used to be very abundant in the first half of the 20th century, and harvesting muskrats for their meat and fur was a critical part of springtime subsistence activities. It was not uncommon for a family to harvest 1,000 or 2,000 muskrats in a season and use the furs to pay for food and supplies.
Then muskrat numbers plummeted.
Scientists aren’t sure why the muskrat population fell to such low levels. But they do know that muskrats have returned to levels not seen in Alaska for at least 40 years.
Galena elder Paddy Nollner remembers a time when it seemed like there was a never-ending supply of muskrats, and muskrat furs were a valuable trade good.
Nollner places the beginning of the muskrat decline around Galena in the early 1950s. Elsewhere, muskrats may have remained abundant until the early 1970s.
Then muskrat populations dropped sharply, and stayed relatively low until the past few years.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife biologist and pilot Brad Scotton says that the muskrat decline happened all across North America at roughly the same time, and scientists are still debating why it happened. No single explanation works continent-wide. But in certain areas, habitat loss, environmental contamination, changes in water depth, increased predation and overabundance help explain the decline.
It is clear that muskrats are prolific breeders, and Scotton thinks that helps cast aside the theory that too much hunting and trapping caused the population collapse.
State Fish and Game biologist and pilot Tom Seaton has been studying muskrats for more than 20 years, mainly in the Tanana and upper Yukon drainages. In those areas too, the muskrats were virtually extinct for a while.
But then Seaton and other biologists began to see an upswing in muskrat populations around 2004. From the vantage point of his airplane, Seaton has witnessed a steadily growing population every year since then.
Seaton says he’s excited to how the abundance of muskrats affects the ecosystems in which they live. Muskrats are largely vegetarian, and are eaten by hawks, owls, mink, and otters.
Trappers might also welcome the return of the muskrat, as muskrat furs have bought in as much as $19 apiece in a fur auction earlier this year. The average price was closer to $5 each, but demand was strong from both Chinese and Canadian buyers. Muskrat fur goes into winter hats for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Canadian military.
As for how long muskrat numbers will remain high…nobody knows.
The city of Houston is facing such severe financial woes that all but three city employees have been furloughed. Houston mayor Virgie Thompson is working without pay, and volunteers are keeping the wheels of city government turning.
Houston, on the Parks Highway in the Susitna Valley, has hit the financial wall. Houston mayor Virgie Thompson, blames the crisis on unpaid property taxes.
“There’s a little over $35, 000 delinquent, in other words, they haven’t paid it. So that’s $35, 000 right now that we don’t have that we projected to have.”
The city of two thousand residents is just beyond commuting distance to Anchorage, there are few local jobs, and state revenue sharing funds from this fiscal year are running out. Thompson says the city’s greatest source of revenue is property taxes, and that the much ballyhooed Alaska Railroad spur linking Houston and Port MacKenzie is not helping bring in any money.
“Not yet. You know, part of that is owned by the Borough, and you can’t tax the Borough. The other part is owned by the state, and you can’t tax the state. The basic infrastructure is there, but until the private sector comes in and does something with it, it’s not taxable.”
Thompson says she’s putting in the 80 hours a month required by city law, but is not turning in her time card to the finance clerk, so as to keep her 1500 – dollar a month salary in the coffers.
The finance clerk, along with the city’s fire chief and city clerk, are the only Houston city employees now drawing a paycheck.
The city is not legally allowed to borrow money. City sales taxes bring in some revenue during the tourism season, which has barely started, and next year’s state revenue sharing is still on the horizon. There is some money in the Matanuska Susitna Borough budget for Houston: $9500 for the fire department, and a 21 thousand dollar block grant to be used at the city’s discretion.
The Mat-Su Borough budget for next year has been approved, but is awaiting expected vetoes from Borough mayor Larry DeVilbiss, which will be made known this week.
Thompson says the city is due three mils of Matanuska Susitna Borough property taxes. The Borough collects the taxes and sends out the delinquent notices, but it can be up to three years before any foreclosure action is taken on non-payers.
“I mean, we may be worse off than a lot of other cities, but, look at the state. It’s the domino affect, it goes down. Who knows, half of those people who are going to be laid off on the Slope actually live in the city of Houston and they can’t afford to pay their property taxes, so it affects us.”
Two positions, a full time public works director and one part time job are furloughed, one position will not be rehired, and all the firefighters have been furloughed from duty shifts, although they will be paid if called on to fight a fire.
Thompson says it’s normally June before money gets tight. This year, she says, the financial squeeze started in April. Thompson says the city will struggle to provide the services that property owners who did pay taxes deserve.
A 7-year-old girl in Unalakleet was severely injured in a dog attack Sunday—and had to be medevaced to Anchorage for her injuries.
In an online dispatch Alaska State Troopers say the girl, who was not named, was petting a dog leashed dog in a dog lot near her home. Troopers say that that dog, in addition to a second loose dog that was not tied up, attacked her.
Troopers say an adult bystander—unrelated to the girl–intervened and stopped the attack. The child was brought to the community clinic for “severe injuries” to her face and neck before being medevaced to Anchorage for further treatment.
The mauling was reported to Troopers shortly after 11:00 Sunday night.
Trooper spokesperson Tim DeSpain says, as of Tuesday, no charges are anticipated against anyone involved in the incident. He adds that the dogs were not rabid and Troopers have no past reports “indicating the animals were violent.”
Troopers say the dogs, both huskies, were killed by their owner Monday.
Tour company Juneau Whale Watch recently finished paying almost $12,000 in fines for violating the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration cited the business last fall for two violations that occurred in August 2013. Both incidents were reported to NOAA by members of the public and were verified with video and photo evidence.
The first violation took place around Horse and Colt Islands. In a news release, NOAA says a Juneau Whale Watch boat was seen chasing a pod of orcas, which caused the whales to change direction.
A week later, the company violated the “hundred-yard rule.” It’s unlawful to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards. During off-duty time, Juneau Whale Watch staff members were seen paddle boarding near humpback whales, including a mother and calf.
Juneau Whale Watch accepted responsibility and agreed to pay the fines soon after being notified of the violations. General Manager Serene Hutchinson says the company has made sure incidents like those haven’t happened since.
“This was an eye-opening experience. We have increased our trainings of our captains and we’ve gone over the regulations better and we have more experienced captains now.”
Hutchinson says the captain involved in both violations is no longer with the company.
NOAA enforcement officer Robert Marvelle says, so far this season, the agency hasn’t received any complaints about potential violations on the water.
Besides following to the 100-yard rule for humpback whales, Marvelle says boaters shouldn’t alter the behavior of marine mammals by getting too close.
“Give the animals space to do what they naturally need to do — for eating, just transiting the area, playing, all that.”
When the cruise ship season is in full swing, Marvelle says up to 60 boats can be in North Pass watching whales. They include charter fishing boats, whale watching boats and sport boats.
Clean up and assessment work continues following a diesel spill in southern Cook Inlet over the weekend. The vessel in question is currently tied up in Seldovia, on the southern Kenai Peninsula.
The 116-foot landing craft, Thor’s Hammer, was traveling from Seward to Bristol Bay when it encountered rough seas between Gore Point and Nuka Island, which is in Kachemak Bay State Park. Winds were reported in that area at 25 knots with seas to six feet Friday night.
Steven Russell is an environmental program manager with the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation. He says the vessel itself wasn’t damaged, but its cargo was.
“They had a 9,000 gallon tank trailer onboard the vessel and it moved,” Russell said. “It didn’t necessarily break loose, but it shifted and punctured the tank trailer in two places.”
He says crews attempted to make temporary repairs at sea. They then headed for the calmer waters near Flat Island and were met by response teams including the Coast Guard and DEC Saturday morning.
Russell says the crew considered taking the vessel to Port Graham Saturday evening for repairs, but due to limited facilities and logistics, they decided to go its larger neighbor, Seldovia, on Sunday instead.
“The vessel transited from the Gore Point, Nuka Island area to lower Cook Inlet and conducted additional repairs,” Russell said. “It’s estimated that in that transit, they lost approximately 6000 gallons of Number 1 diesel fuel.”
Russell says the nature of diesel fuel in that environment is that it would break apart and dissipate quickly, with no obvious remnants after about an hour.
He says the leaks on the tanker were secured Saturday and it is not producing a visible sheen from the deck.
Once in Seldovia, Thor’s Hammer was boomed off. On Monday afternoon, about 3000 gallons of diesel was offloaded from the damaged tanker.
The vessel is still tied up at the Seldovia City Dock where it’s being evaluated and decontaminated. It’s under the supervision of the U.S. Coast Guard and Alaska Chedux, a private contractor specializing in spill response and cleanup.
“That operation will continue until the Coast Guard and others are sure that the vessel is no longer a potential environmental threat,” Russell said. “We have seen no leakage from the vessel, no sheening from the vessel since it arrived in the southern Cook Inlet.”
Russell says the Department of Interior, National Marine Fisheries Service, and National Wildlife Service evaluated potential harm to wildlife in the area and found none.
“We had certain concerns about bird areas and seal and sea lions,” Russell said. Currently, we have had no indication that any wildlife has been affected by this.”
He says there are still a few unknowns like did the fuel gush out all at once in a single area after it was first damaged or did it seep out over the miles the vessel traveled to safe harbor.
The incident team is waiting for automated vessel tracking information to more closely pinpoint its route.
Russell says the Coast Guard, which is leading the operation, should release more information over the next few days.
No injuries, or damage to the vessel, have been reported.
Anchorage police are investigating a south Anchorage shooting Monday night that left a man dead.
Anchorage television station KTUU reports police took a call on shots fired at 11:25 p.m. and responded to a home on Pokey Circle near Lake Otis Parkway and 84th Avenue.
Police found a man dead and witnesses at the home.
Police say the dead man’s next of kin has been notified but they have not released his name.
Police say they’re not looking for the shooter and that all people involved were taken to the police station.
Neighbor Kellie Robinson says she heard as many as six gunshots.