Alaska News

As PAC Money Pours Into Runoff, Some Numbers Still Missing

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 17:15

With less than a week until Anchroage voters head to the polls to select a new mayor in a runoff election, hundreds of thousands of dollars are flooding the race. Candidate Ethan Berkowitz has an overwhelming lead in terms of donors and funds, but with no polling data released by either campaign, the results are difficult to predict.

According to the latest round of filings with the Alaska Political Offices Commission,  Berkowitz leads Amy Demboski by every fund-raising measure.

In terms of overall totals, the Berkowitz campaign raised $220,848.13 between March 29th and April 25th, more than twice the Demboski campaign’s reported income of $97,942.39.

And Berkowitz money came from a broader donor roll: around 1,4500 individuals. Demboski’s campaign collected donations from just over 400.

Many of Berkowitz’s donors are public employees donating individually. However, a Political Action Group called Berkowitz For A Better Anchorage made up of unions representing the fire and police departments, state employees, and teachers has raised $102,000, spending down $86,037.50 on local ads so far.

Four sitting members of the Anchorage Assembly made financial contributions the Berkowitz campaign, the body Demboski currently serves on. In earlier filings, Assembly Member Bill Evans donated to Demboski’s campaign. Mayor Dan Sullivan also made a $500 contribution to her campaign in April.

With just a few days left before Tuesday’s runoff, the Demboski campaign has $28,205.84 cash on hand (before $14,988.19 in outstanding debts), about a quarter of the $100,556.15 the Berkowitz campaign plans on spending down before the runoff on May 5th.

Both candidates have paid outside groups to collect polling data, but neither is saying what it’s turned up. Demboski’s campaign reports a $5,000 debt to Dittman Research for survey info. Campaign spokesperson David Boyle did not return requests for comment on what that research shows.

The Berkowitz campign lists “polling” as part of a $28,037.40 payment to Ivan Moore’s company, though a spokesperson for the campaign declined to specify further what the data show.

Categories: Alaska News

Walker Denies Request To Move Special Session To Anchorage

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 17:12

Gov. Bill Walker has denied a request from legislative leadership to relocate the special session to a different venue. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

For days, the executive and legislative branches have been stuck on education funding, Medicaid, and the fundamental responsibility of paying for government. Now, they are disagreeing on where they want to disagree.

“If they want to do Medicaid and Erin’s Law in Anchorage, that’s fine,” says Gov. Bill Walker. “But do not leave Juneau without a fully funded budget.”

In a letter to legislative leadership and then in a press conference with reporters, Gov. Bill Walker said he would not agree to give lawmakers a two-week recess followed by a change of venue.

Legislative leaders like Senate President Kevin Meyer have been pushing for a relocation since the special session gaveled in on Tuesday. The Anchorage Republican says there are logistical challenges to remaining in Juneau.

“The building’s under major construction. The staff is gone. Our files are gone. And we all have dirty clothes,” say Meyer.

Meyer says most of his suits were put on the ferry 10 days ago.

Given the stalemate on a number of policy questions, Meyer says his caucus would like a cooling period. He adds that requiring the Legislature to take up the budget again may backfire for the governor, who restored some money for education and public employee contracts on Tuesday.

“Okay, we’ll do the budget, but the results may not be any different,” says Meyer. “If anything, my guys — our caucus — we realize we have to get our spending in order first. So, you might actually see more reductions. We’re in no mood to add.”

But some Democrats, like House Minority Leader Chris Tuck, are supportive of the governor’s decision. He says a recess at this time is inappropriate.

“I have a brand new baby I’ve only spent a few hours with,” says Tuck. “If anybody wants to go home and be with their newborn, it’s me. I’m not interested in taking a vacation. A lot of people are saying, ‘Oh, everybody’s worn out.’ Worn out? We used to have a 120-day session here.”

No matter where the special session is held, a compromise seems elusive.

Categories: Alaska News

Murkowski: Alaskans ‘Scared to Death’ of Water Rule

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 16:54

The White House is reviewing a highly controversial EPA rule on streams and wetlands. It’s known as “Waters of the U.S.,” or WOTUS. Opponents complain the federal government is trying to regulate puddles and muddy farm fields, charges the EPA says are unfounded.

Today Sen. Lisa Murkowski pressed EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy on the proposed regulation. Alaska has nearly two-thirds of the nation’s wetlands, and Murkowski says the rule has all kinds of people worried, from homebuilders to miners and energy companies.

“They are scared to death about what we might see with application of this rule,” Murkowski told McCarthy. “And you keep using the word ‘clarificiation,’ or ‘this is just to clarify,’ but again I’m hearing from too many different sectors saying, ‘This is not clarification. This is a limitation on our ability to not only move but to breathe.’”

McCarthy stuck to her claim that the rule is not an expansion of Clean Water Act, merely a clarification to comply with Supreme Court rulings. She says it would not expand the acreage covered by the Clean Water Act but better defines where it applies.

The U.S. House is expected to vote tomorrow on a bill to block the WOTUS rule, which the White House has pledged to veto. Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan is among a group of mostly Republican senators announcing another anti-WOTUS bill tomorrow.

Categories: Alaska News

Bethel City Council Votes To Protest Liquor Licenses

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 14:17

It’s been four decades since Bethel had a liquor store, and for now, that status will continue. The Bethel City Council voted Tuesday to protest two liquor store license applications from the Bethel Native Corporation’s Bethel Spirits and the Alaska Commercial Company

Council members cited the loud public outcry against having easier access to alcohol, as well as possible violations of rules against being too close to churches and schools.

When the debate entered the weeds, Council member Chuck Herman added a line to the resolution:

“I just want to make it very clear our protest stands based on the community being opposed to it and not based on any technical violations.”

The vote was 4 to 3.

The state’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board is required to honor protests from governing bodies unless they are found to be arbitrary, capricious, and unreasonable.

Bethel Native Corporation President and CEO Ana Hoffman insisted the proposed store is legally situated and argued that what Bethel has now is not working.

“The presence of illegal sales is undeniable and not a cent of the sales is taxed. We have quite possibly created the most unhealthy environment imaginable. Allowing for the issuance of a liquor licenses enhances control and regulation over the current system of chaos.”

In an October non-binding advisory vote, Bethel citizens will weigh in on whether they support several categories of liquor licenses. In the same election, they can approve a new 12 percent alcohol sales tax.

Categories: Alaska News

‘Story Map’ Reveals Hidden Lives of Anchorage Bears

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 13:41

 

A new map from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game offers a bear’s eye view of Anchorage. The “story map” draws on data and video collected from nine bears- six black and three brown- who wore cameras on special collars in 2012 and 2013. The videos capture bears playing with lawn art, slurping up barbecue grease and running across busy intersections.

Sean Farley is the biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game who led the study.

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Interview Highlights

Why they’re in the city:

“They’re not here to visit us. They could give a hooey about us. They’re here for the garbage, the fish, the berries, the gull eggs, the equisetum, the grasses, the dandelions.”

Bears interacting with other bears:

“We might capture a lone bear, usually a youngster, put a camera on it and more often than not it would hook up with two or three other bears and pal around with them. And in one case we had a young black bear hook up and play with a young brown bear. So they’re a little more social than we give them credit for when they’re young.”

A bear takes a picture of the biologist, from a tree:

“I’m a biologist and that was a head slapper for me.. black bears spend a lot of time in trees and they do in Anchorage. I had just grilled a hot dog and was looking out my window and I realized I was looking at a black bear in a tree in my yard and I’m not way up the hillside at all. I ran outside and it was a collared bear and it actually took a picture of my house.”

The bears are all around:

“From previous work I can tell you that an awful lot of times bears might be 10 or 20 yards off in the bushes while we walk down the trail. We’re a visual species- we don’t see them therefore there aren’t any bears here. But the truth is they’re off to the side being good bears, frankly, avoiding people.”

Confronting the garbage problem:

“Because we do have an awful lot of unsecured garbage, I hope we can really change that. We really need a stronger effort to get bear resistant containers that people can use, and that will make a difference. Because we’re always going to have bears in Anchorage. Anchorage is a big city, but we’re in the middle of wilderness.”

 

Categories: Alaska News

Kick the Bucket: Lack of Funding Hampers Development of Modern Sanitation in Rural Alaska

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 11:21

This chart shows the sharp decline in funding for rural water and sewer projects in Alaska. Visit http://dhss.alaska.gov/ahcc/Documents/meetings/201408/GriffithBlackRuralSanitationPresentation.pdf to see the rest of the presentation.
Bill Griffith, Mike Black ADEC, ANTHC

Most of us have never lived with without running water at home. Today, we’ll learn about some people who are just getting used to it, and others who would like to get used to having running water. In the second segment of the series Kick the Bucket, we’ll also hear some of the reasons Alaska hasn’t made modern plumbing a simple fact of life for all Alaskans.

Dan Winkleman, the president of the Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation (YKHC), described a recent phone call from his mother-in-law in Kwethluk.

“She said, ‘Guess what?’ ‘So I said, ‘What?’  She said, ‘I just finished doing the dishes in my sink with the water from the faucet and I wanted to let you know how exciting that was.’ She was giddy with excitement,” said Winkelman.

What’s so exciting about washing dishes?  Kwethluk never had running water before. It wasn’t easy and it wasn’t cheap:  a water treatment plant, water tank and sewage lagoon cost $41 million.

That’s a lot of money — but this is rural Alaska. Weather can wreak havoc with schedules. Getting anything here is expensive, especially heavy equipment. And, piped water and sewer means digging trenches for pipes and pumps, plus installing plumbing in individual homes. But Kwethluk’s system is costly even for rural Alaska, where piped water and sewer in some communities cost in the three-to-five million dollar range.

YKHC Remote Maintenance Worker Bob White said the Kwethluk treatment plant, which cost $4.2 million, has sophisticated features to reduce maintenance and operations, such as computerized controls and sensors that will send out alerts if something isn’t working as it should. And to avoid the expense of large underground sewage pipes, each home is getting a grinder pump that will move sewage through narrow, 2-inch-pipes.

Hefting the pump on to a piece of plywood, White said, “They’re expensive, and they’re heavy. This one’s brand new.”

And it’s heavy duty.

“Part of the problem, it wouldn’t take the harsh conditions,” said White. “The pump manufacturer actually started making an Arctic version, and this is their Arctic version.”

Driving the half mile from the treatment plant to the sewage lagoon, White said workers dredged a pond 20 feet deep to get the soil used to build the berm around the lagoon. Raw sewage is pumped in, then natural processes take over and break it down. The Kwethluk sewer lagoon cost $7.5 million dollars – but, as White explains, that cost is all up-front.

“The good thing about a lagoon is once you construct it, your costs are pretty much done. The maintenance on this lagoon will be less than $5,000 a year,” said White. “So lagoons are really efficient if you have the land mass.”

Federal and state funding for the Kwethluk project came in increments so construction spanned some 15 years – which also added to the cost.

Fifty miles up the Kuskokwim River, Tuntutuliak, population 400, doesn’t have running water and gets by on what’s called a flush-haul system. Waste from flush toilets goes into a holding tank, then gets hauled away. People have to haul water. Brian Lefferts, director of YKHC’s office of environmental health and engineering, said there’s a public health cost to that.

“In situations like that,” says Lefferts, “we find that people drastically conserve the water and then they don’t realize the health benefits that come with having piped running water and sewer service.”

Lefferts said the decision on which communities get funding for water and sewer projects comes out of a detailed evaluation.

“All the water and sewer, what we call needs in the state, get entered into a database. It’s called a sanitation deficiency system,” said Lefferts. “We have estimated project costs, the number of homes they’d serve, looking at health impact, capital cost, d the current level of service, and then the level of service they’d have after the project.”

Other criteria include how well the community is doing managing what it has – collecting fees, for instance, and getting employees trained and certified.

A 1994 report by the federal Office of Technology Assessment recommended an annual budget of $120 million for rural sanitation in Alaska. Federal and state funding combined never reached that level, and now officials say it will take $900 million to catch up. That’s on top of $2.2 billion dollars spent over the past two decades.

In a recent presentation to state legislators, Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium Sanitation Facilities Program Manager David Bevridge said most of that money has come from federal agencies.

“If you look through the Village Safe Water program, it gets matched with federal dollars on a 25-75 percent ratio,” Bevridge explained. “So for every 25 dollars the federal government will kick in 75 dollars so that’s been a big component of the funding in Alaska.”

In 2014, the state legislature allocated $7.5 million for Village Safe Water, out of a $13 billion state budget, to match $50 million from the Indian Health Service, Environmental Protection Agency, and U.S. Department of Agriculture. But federal funding has dropped by 64 percent in the last ten years.  The gap between what’s needed and what’s available is getting wider. And the lack of money for maintenance and operations right now is damaging existing systems. We’ll find out more about that next time.

Categories: Alaska News

A Moving Target: Postal Inspectors Root Out Liquor By Mail

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 10:52

Citizens in Bethel are weighing a decision on a proposal for the first liquor store in decades. In the shadow of the debate is a powerful and elaborate bootlegging economy across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. A small team of federal law enforcement agents with the United States Postal Inspection Service is working to keep alcohol out of the mail. It’s one of the oldest law enforcement agency in the country, a group with a unique mission that chases after each suspicious package.

KYUK’s Ben Matheson has more in the third installment profiling efforts to stem the flow of illegal alcohol to local option communities in the YK Delta.

Transporting alcohol by boat, truck, or snow machine is the choice of most bootleggers trying to import alcohol into dry villages. But for people who live in more distant communities, or in times when river conditions make travel impossible, the United States Postal Service can be a tempting way for many to ship illegal cargo directly to the post office box of the recipient. It doesn’t always arrive as planned.

Anchorage-based Postal Inspector Alan Damron spends his waking hours trying to stop bottles from reaching places where they will do harm. It’s completely illegal to send alcohol through US mail.

“Sometimes it’s really obvious when something is, for instance, leaking whiskey or vodka and you can smell it a mile away. Those are the easy ones to find,” said Damron.

Records of alcohol seizures over the past four years show dozens of shipments per year to local option communities intercepted by the Anchorage team. More are discovered by troopers in regional hubs. While a few broken microbrews or wine make the list, the vast majority sent to local option communities are vodka and whiskey. Many are a just few bottles, but shipments as large as 36 bottles of vodka or two dozen bottles of Rich & Rare whiskey were intercepted. Depending on the final destination, that can be worth thousands of dollars on the black market.

Veteran Inspector Ron Zielinski is in an interim supervisor in Anchorage and spent eight years working the state’s alcohol cases. He says people try, with varying success, to hide liquor.

“They burp the bottles, the plastic bottles that have air in them, they will break the seal, release the air, close them up and duct tape them. That was going on 15 years ago, it’s still going on today. Hiding it in anything… dog food. Switching it into apple juice bottles,” said Zielinski.

Damron says their success relies more on people than it does on fancy technology or dogs that are used in drug enforcement.

“With alcohol it’s different, the main way we get into the packages is talking to people, getting their side of the story. That’s usually talking to the people the packages are going to,” said Damron.

The inspectors have eyes and ears on the ground in local contacts who give them tips. Damron spent time on the Kuskokwim River ice road this winter and also travels to bush communities.

“We develop intelligence to find out who’s doing this, a lot of these the communities are so small, they know what’s going on in town,” said Damron.

And as US mail is a highly protected federal service, they’ve trained and authorized deputized troopers in a unique program to do postal sorts and build cases, what they call force multipliers. For Damron, the connection between public safety and the alcohol and drugs he searches for is clear.

“When we find a bottle of alcohol, it could be one less rape, one less assault or person abusing a child. It’s a huge motivation because I’m from here, born and raised in Alaska, during my whole life I’ve heard about the effects of alcohol in communities,” said Damron.

Although it’s a federal misdemeanor to ship alcohol, the inspector’s cases are most often prosecuted at the state level where bootleggers can face felony level charges. Damron doesn’t know how many gallons elude inspectors and travel hundred of miles to illegally arrive in mailboxes, but he says every bottle is worth the effort.

“You do the best you can do, you go to work every day and do your duties to the best of your abilities, but there’ definitely going to be stuff you don’t find,” said Damron. “But we’re not going to give up, we’re going to keep pushing and keeping finding and work with the state to hold people accountable for what they’re doing.”

And as millions of parcels travel across the country, it’s going to happen package by package.

Categories: Alaska News

Gov. Walker Proposes Larger Ferry Budget

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 10:40

Students protest cuts in the marine highway system budget at the Kake ferry terminal in March. (Photo courtesy Adam Davis/Sustainable Southeast Partnership)

Gov. Bill Walker says the state ferry system needs more money to avoid “crippling cuts” during the next fiscal year.

Walker released a new operating budget Tuesday after the legislature adjourned Monday without fully funding state government.

His new spending plan for the special session adds $7 million for ferries. That’s less than half the amount lawmakers cut before adjourning.

Jeremy Woodrow is an Alaska Marine Highway System spokesman.

“We aren’t sure exactly where that service will be improved in the system. That’s something that the department will still need to review and evaluate before we can give a definite answer,” he says.

The House and Senate could still take the new ferry money out of the budget — or shrink the increase.

Any cuts will reduce sailings during the next fiscal year, which begins in July.

Woodrow says officials will notify ticket-holders of cancellations and other changes once the budget is done.

“When we do know a final schedule and we can guarantee that we’ve maximized that service with the budget that we’re given, we will put an announcement out and we will inform passengers what our process is, moving forward,” he says.

Woodrow says ticket-holders will be rescheduled in the order they made reservations.

Other spending increases proposed in the governor’s new budget include schools, Medicaid, the university system and domestic violence programs.

Categories: Alaska News

Troopers Say Tanana Man Dies In ATV Crash

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 10:37

Alaska State Troopers say a 46-year-old Tanana man has died in an all-terrain vehicle crash near the interior community.

Troopers say Lawrence Moses was found dead of his injuries after the crash, which was reported Sunday night.

The crash occurred on Mission Hill Road about two miles from the community.

Troopers say a preliminary investigation indicates Moses lost control of the vehicle, which struck a tree after veering off the road.

According to troopers, Moses’ body is being taken to the state medical examiner’s office in Anchorage.

Tanana is located 130 miles west of Fairbanks.

Categories: Alaska News

Missing Boater Found Dead Near Seldovia

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 10:27

Sixty-eight-year old Robert Purpura, of Seldovia, was identified Monday night after an extensive search throughout the day.

Alaska State Troopers report they were contacted by Seldovia pilot Keith Gain, who said he was searching for a missing boater. Gain told Troopers he’d located Purpura’s skiff floating near McDonald Spit with the motor still running.

Purpura was reported missing after being several hours overdue coming home from Jakolof Bay.

Responders notified the US Coast Guard. Troopers from Anchor Point responded in the P/V Augustine. Several private vessels were out searching the area around Seldovia as well.

Just after 7 p.m., the crew of a fixed-wing aircraft from Homer spotted a body floating in the water about a mile north of McDonald Spit.

Search vessels surrounded the area and Purpura’s body was recovered and identified.

Troopers report the state medical examiner was contacted and no foul play is suspected. Next of kin has been notified.

Purpura was a well-known and liked community member around the southern peninsula. According to friends, he was a longtime resident of Little Tutka, where he lived and raised children on a houseboat. He then moved to Seldovia, where people were attracted to his colorful and boisterous character.

He was serving as the chair of the Seldovia Fish and Game advisory committee and was active in local public affairs.

He is survived by family and friends.

Categories: Alaska News

Sitka Hospital Asks Community For Help With Money Problems

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 10:24

Sitka Community Hospital is turning to the residents it serves to try to figure out how to climb out of its $2 million budget deficit.

The Daily Sitka Sentinel reports that CEO Rob Allen spoke with about two dozen people at a community town hall Monday asking where the hospital can improve.

Among the topics that came up was the hospital’s electronic health records system, which has caused delays in billing since it was installed last year.

Next the hospital will meet with specific stakeholders and offer an online survey, which will be released in May. Allen says hospital staff will draft a plan based on survey results.

In December, the Sitka Assembly voted to extend a line of credit to the hospital from $500,000 to $1.5 million.

Categories: Alaska News

Denali National Park Wolf Count Drops Below 50

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 10:22

Denali National Park and Preserve’s wolf numbers have reached a record low this spring with an estimated population of just 48, according to a Park Service study.

The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports that Park Service estimates the wolf population twice each year since 1986 using radio collard wolves and analysis of the few un-collared wolves.

The park’s Chief Wildlife Biologist Steve Arthur says the population decline can be attributed to low snowfall, which made it easier for prey to flee from the wolves, and better tracking technology. The tracking expands biologists understanding of the wolves’ home range, which is used to estimate the population.

Wolf advocates say this shows the need to reinstate a wolf-protection buffer zone that banned trapping in an area directly outside the park until 2008.

Categories: Alaska News

Controversial Anchorage Budget Bumps Up Taxes for Public Safety, Veto Likely

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 02:22

The Anchorage Assembly passed a budget raising property taxes by 5.61%, splitting the body between those calling for fiscal conservatism, and others stressing a need for spending on public safety. Clashes will likely lead to line-item vetoes from the mayor’s administration.

Holding his young daughter at Tuesday evening’s meeting, Kelsey Taylor describes his job straightforwardly: “I’m a garbage man.”

Taylor was one of many employees from Solid Waste Services, which handles trash for much of Anchorage. They were there over a proposal to sell off the trash collection service to a private company. The issue has made garbage a hot topic in city politics. A report from a financial consultant found the utility is currently in good working order, and that selling it could bring financial outcomes ranging from marginal short-term gains, to an overall decline in revenues.

“It just seems like a bad deal for everybody,” Taylor said of the report’s findings, “really not a good competitive deal for the taxpayers of Anchorage.”

SWS has a surplus of cash right now. The Administration’s budget planned on shifting $5 million from the utility into different funds.

“The utility is way over-funded, they should not be holding cash,” Mayor Dan Sullivan said after the Assembly meeting. He believes the utility is fundamentally owned by all the residents of Anchorage, and that any extra money should be passed along in the form of property tax relief. “I think that’s a better use than parking a bunch of cash where they don’t need.”

But Assembly members rejected that, unsettling the mathematical equilibrium in the Administration’s budget.

A solid block of Assembly members added in several amendments, including more animal control employees, a coordinator for issues on homelessness, and a planner to work on new marijuana regulations. All together, the budget changes amount to a bump over last year’s levels. The amended version passed 6 to 5 (Demboski, Evans, Hall, Johnston, and Starr voting against), with some fiscal conservatives objecting that a tax increase is unacceptable.

But others claimed the Administration’s budget left out money for much needed services.

“These amendments tonight dealt with public safety,” said Assembly Chair Dick Traini, who commends the Administration’s emphasis on fiscal produnce, but sees an obligation to provide funding for measures to keep the public safe. “I think you’re going to find a lot of people very happy when they can get the officers to come when they’ve got an issue with a wild dog.”

Assembly members also removed a controversial pilot program from the Administration to send a small number of Anchorage’s street alcoholics out of state for substance abuse treatment. The $200,000 set aside for the program will remain in the budget, but it will now be up to an Assembly committee on what kinds of treatment it will fund.

Though it was far from the worst budget battle Sullivan has been through, line item changes are not yet set in stone. “The budget’s not done yet,” he said. “I have seven days to veto.”

The Assembly delayed several items, including voting whether or not to approve a new collective bargaining agreement with the union representing police officers. That will come up at the next meeting, after the runoff election determining the city’s next mayor.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska PTA, community speaks out against education funding cuts

APRN Alaska News - Wed, 2015-04-29 00:32

Community members walk through downtown Anchorage to protest education funding cuts. Hillman/KSKA

Community groups in Anchorage are continuing to protest the state legislature’s cuts to education funding. The Alaska PTA spoke publicly about the issue for the first time at a rally in downtown Anchorage, where about 100 people gathered with signs and balloons.


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Community members and advocates were speaking out against the $48 million dollars in statewide education funding cuts included in the budget passed by legislators earlier this week.

“It’s all about the children,” said Alaska PTA president-elect Juan San Miguel.  “That’s what we’re here for. If we don’t give them the tools that they need to succeed, we’re not going to make it as a country.”

San Miguel said the 7,000 member group is non-partisan and cannot lobby, but they felt they could not be publicly silent on the issue any longer. He suggested that the lawmakers cut their own budget before cutting education.

Other rally goers shared their messages directly with legislators and the governor by pulling out their cell phones and calling Juneau en mass.

Rev. Michael Burke from St. Mary’s Church spoke to the crowd saying education is one of the core values of the state and is important for everyone, including the faith community.

“This is the one thing that unites us all as Alaskans,” he said before taking the microphone. It “is the belief in the wisdom of investment in our children.”

The Anchorage School District is planning for the cuts, though final numbers could still change. The district needs to inform tenured teachers about any layoffs by May 15.

Signs posted around Town Square Park protesting budget cuts to education. Hillman/KSKA

School Board Member Tam Agosti-Gisler, who attended the rally, said the district will likely cut the pilot programs that focus on early learning and literacy.

“These are all valuable components of how we’re trying to move the needle and improve the educational outcomes of our students, but now we’re being asked to walk backwards instead of walk forward.”

The Anchorage superintendent will present their revised budget on Thursday. The legislature’s current budget also cuts forward funding for education.

On Tuesday evening, the Anchorage Assembly approved the district’s originally proposed $784 million budget.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: April 28, 2015

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-04-28 18:28

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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Icebreakers? Sure, But Coast Guard Boss Says Cutters Come First

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Anchorage

The head of the Coast Guard says the country must invest in new icebreakers to meet a predicted increase in Arctic drilling and marine traffic. But he
also told a U.S. Senate panel today (TUES) the Coast Guard needs a lot of ships, and icebreakers aren’t the top item on his acquisitions list.

As Lawmakers Gavel In For A Special Session, Leaders Ask For A Break And Relocation
Alexandra Gutierrez, APRN – Juneau

Immediately after the Legislature gaveled out of their extended regular session, Gov. Bill Walker called them back in for a special one.

Marriage Equality Advocates Ask Governor To “Stop In The Name Of Love.”
Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

On the day the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on marriage equality, more than 40 people gathered at the Dimond Courthouse plaza across from the State Capitol in Juneau to rally through song and dance.

A Moving Target: Stopping Booze At The River
Ben Matheson, KYUK – Bethel

In the Yukon-Kuskowim Delta, the three Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Taskforce (WAANT) investigators can’t be everywhere at once. Some villages are trying to fill in gaps where bootlegged alcohol reaches dry option communities. In the second of a three-part series on the law enforcement efforts to stem the flow of alcohol to the region, a look at Akiak’s tribal approach.

Kick The Bucket: Health Implications Of Third World Conditions In Rural Alaska
Joaqlin Estus, KNBA – Anchorage

More than six percent of Alaskans live without water or sewer systems.  The so-called “honey bucket” situation has frequently been deplored and millions of federal and state dollars have been devoted to dealing with it.

Unalaska Preps For Cruise Passenger Influx
Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

Unalaska will get a big population boost this weekend, with the first cruise ship of what’s shaping up to be a busy summer. The Aleutian Islands
usually see a ferry run before the cruise ships start coming — but not this year.

U.S. Army ‘Sugar Bears’ Fly Supplies To Denali
Phillip Manning, KTNA – Talkeetna

Army helicopters flew the last round of supplies to Denali base camp yesterday for the 2015 climbing season.  The unit, dubbed the “Sugar Bears”
is well-known in Talkeetna, and has a history in Alaska of combining training and supply runs.

Categories: Alaska News

Marriage Equality Advocates Ask Governor and Attorney General To “Stop in the name of the love”

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-04-28 18:09

Photo courtesy of David Purdy-KTOO

The U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on marriage equality yesterday (Tuesday). On the same day, around 40 people gathered at the Dimond Courthouse plaza across from the State Capitol in Juneau to rally through song and dance.

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The group wants Gov. Bill Walker and Attorney General Craig Richards to end Alaska’s same-sex marriage appeal in one federal case and withdraw its support of gay marriage bans in the Supreme Court case.

With a single speaker wrapped in plastic, two microphones and a number of backup dancers, around 30 people stood in the rain singing,

“Stop in the name of love/ Before you break my heart/ Think it over/ Think it over/ Gov’nor Walker, I’m aware of what you do/ After we voted for you….”

Here’s Maureen Longworth reciting her own version:

“Gov. Walker, I’m aware of what you do. After we voted for you, you signed on the amicus brief against marriage equality. There’s time before you spend money causing us pain and hurt. Think it over. We gave our trust to you.”

At the end of the 5-minute performance, Longworth asked everyone to participate.

“Call Gov. Walker and ask him to stop in the name of love. And have all your family and friends do the same.” Longworth said.

Longworth is referring to the state’s appeal to the federal court decision that legalized same-sex marriage in Alaska. Gov. Sean Parnell’s administration initiated the appeal, and it’s been carried forward by Gov. Walker’s administration.

Photo courtesy of David Purdy-KTOO

 

Longworth and others singing also want the state to withdraw from the amicus brief to the U.S. Supreme Court defending gay marriage bans.

Kimberly Crawford, who voted for Walker, has been doing exactly what Longworth is asking people to do.

” I’ve called him several times, emailed him. I mean, it’s unacceptable in my opinion.” Crawford said she’d had no response.

Kimberly married Marguerite Crawford in 2013 in Connecticut, and their marriage was recognized in Alaska last October when same-sex marriage became legal.

“We had our first marriage, what we consider our real marriage Aug. 4, 2012, in the courtyard here. Since we couldn’t get married inside the court, we were married outside.”

Marguerite Crawford hopes the singing and dancing will send a message to the governor and attorney general.

“It’s a good lighthearted way to say they are breaking our hearts by denying us the equality that other community members receive.” Crawford said.

Through a spokesperson, the governor says he respects the separation of power from the attorney general; the issue of withdrawing the state’s same-sex marriage appeal or from the amicus brief is up to the attorney general.

Assistant Attorney General Cori Mills says the Department of Law doesn’t plan on withdrawing from either. In January, the Walker administration asked to hold the appeal. Mills says it’s prudent to wait for the Supreme Court decision.

“We haven’t done any work on the case. We have been waiting until the U.S. Supreme makes its decision and the Ninth Circuit granted that stay to wait and see what happens.”

She says since the stay was issued, no money has been spent on litigation. She also said signing onto an amicus brief is a routine department function and didn’t result in additional costs.

As of Tuesday morning, the Department of Health and Social Services reports there have been 134 same-sex marriages in Alaska since it became legal on Oct. 14.

Categories: Alaska News

U.S. Army ‘Sugar Bears’ Fly Supplies to Denali

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-04-28 17:57

Photo courtesy of KTNA

 

On Monday, Army helicopters flew the last round of supplies to Denali base camp for the 2015 climbing season.  The unit, dubbed the “Sugar Bears” is well-known in Talkeetna, and has a history in Alaska of combining training and supply runs.

There are signs all around of the imminent beginning of Denali climbing season.  The temperature is warming, the mosquitos are back, and the Sugar Bears are in town.  Sugar Bears is the nickname of the U.S. Army 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment’s Bravo Company, based at Fort Wainwright.  If the name conjures up images of breakfast cereal, there’s a good reason.

In the 1960s, a sugary breakfast cereal named Sugar Crisp went on sale.  The name has since been changed to Golden crisp. Both brands feature as a mascot the appropriately named Sugar Bear.  Chief Warrant Officer Kirk Donovan says Bravo Company’s name originated from supply runs that the unit made after relocating following Vietnam.

“When they first came up to Alaska, they used to haul a lot of supplies to real remote areas—real remote villages, and they used to bring in…cereal.”

Photo courtesy of KTNA

Chief Warrant Officer Malcolm Jennings says the unit has official permission to use the Sugar Bear mascot.

“We have a letter of permission from Post Cereal to call ourselves the Sugar Bears.”

Despite the frankly adorable image the unit’s name conjures, the 1-52nd’s Bravo Company is an Army unit like many others.  For the last few days, they have been taking loads of supplies from Talkeetna to support the National Park Service’s presence on Denali.  That’s not their only role, however.  The unit returned from deployment to Afghanistan late last year, and a soldier showed me where on the helicopter guns could be mounted.  Lieutenant Colonel Alan Brown, a U.S. Army Alaska spokesman, says the Sugar Bears are training again now that they are back in the U.S.

“They’ve been working to get their aircraft back from deployment, get them all refitted and back to operating speed, so they’re going to have a busy summer in the high training season, here.”

Lieutenant Colonel Brown says part of that training means not only the type of terrain the soldiers operate on, but also preparing for the variety of entities that they might have to work with.

“This kind of training gives us the ability to train all over the region, not only at high altitude in this mountainous terrain, but also really doing a lot of collaboration with different agencies.”

The vehicle of choice for the Sugar Bears in their missions is the CH-47F Chinook helicopter.  With nearly 10,000 horsepower, a cargo capacity of ten tons, and a top speed approaching 200 miles per hour, the Chinook is ideal for the kind of supply mission that Monday’s flight called for.  After a briefing for the reporters tagging along, it was time to get airborne.

After a picturesque flight into the Alaska Range and onto the Kahiltna Glacier, the Sugar Bears began organizing cargo that a smaller helicopter will carry higher on Denali.  Totes full of food, fuel containers, and a number of other supplies were loaded into large cargo nets.  Denali Mountaineering Ranger Joe Reichert oversaw the sorting and bundling of the gear.  He says the interagency cooperation between the Army and the National Park Service benefits both.

Photo courtesy of KTNA

“There’s obviously efficiency, and they’re going to be flying in anyway to do their training, so it seems like a mutually beneficial expense.”

With the loads separated and arranged, it was time to head back to Talkeetna.  With the back ramp of the Chinook open, the return flight proved noisy, but breathtaking.  With this year’s base camp supply runs complete, the Sugar Bears will move on to other training missions until they’re needed elsewhere.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Icebreakers? Sure, but CG Boss Says Cutters Come First

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-04-28 16:59

Photo: USCG

Can two ships be called a “fleet”? If so, that’s the size of the Coast Guard’s ice-breaking fleet, plus one more that’s in the shop and may never return to service. Still, Coast Guard Commandant Paul Zukunft  says he has so few multi-purpose cutters that the Coast Guard can only stop 20 percent of the known drug shipments in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The admiral says that allows international crime, terrorism and human trafficking to flourish with relative impunity.

“With our limited arsenal of ships and aircraft, this is truly an issue of capacity. And this is why the off-shore patrol cutter is our No. 1 recapitalization priority,” he said.

The Coast Guard procurement plan adds 91 new ships to replace an old cutter fleet that’s prone to time-sucking breakdowns. Total cost: more than $21 billion. The commandant says if the Coast Guard is going to build icebreakers, too, he’s going to need a bigger budget. Zukunft says it would be a good investment.

“This is part of our national infrastructure, if you will, in terms of our ability to exert influence and sovereignty in the Arctic domain,” he said.

Some in Congress have pressed the U.S. Navy to chip in for a new billion-dollar icebreaker, but a Navy official balked last month, telling a House panel the service has its own ship-building needs.

Sen. Dan Sullivan of Alaska chaired the Senate hearing. Sullivan says everyone seems to recognize the need for more icebreakers, but paying for it seems to be a matter of political football.

“You know, clearly the Russians in this area are eating our lunch, despite what you mentioned is a country whose size in terms of the economy is well below that of the United States,” Sulllivan said.

Russia is said to have 40 icebreakers. Of those in operation, four are in the heavy duty class. About half of the Russian fleet is medium and small icebreakers that are privately owned. While many of Moscow’s ships are reaching the end of their expected life span, that country has 11 new icebreakers planned or under construction.

Zukunft says he’s still cooperating with his Russian counterparts, so those Russian ships should be considered assets that might be called on to respond to an American search-and-rescue case.

“As we look at what are the real threats as we see in the Arctic, think beyond Vladimir Putin,” he urged. “And the real threats continue to be safety of life at sea, environmental, the well being of the indigenous tribes that have lived up in the Arctic region for the millennium.”

In the near term, despite the lack of a U.S. Coast Guard port in the Arctic, Zukunft says they are preparing for the likelihood that Shell will resume exploratory drilling in the Chukchi Sea this year.

“And we will have a rotational presence of the Coast Guard Cutter Healy, and a national security cutter, and a shore-based aviation detachment, based in the Arctic region this summer,” he said.

The commandant also addressed Alaskan concerns that the seven island-class patrol cutters now based in Southeast and the Gulf of Alaska will be replaced by six fast-response cutters. Yes, Alaska would lose a patrol boat, but Zukunft says the new cutters will be able to operate over more days, in harsher conditions and travel further from home.

 

Categories: Alaska News

As Legislature Gavels In For Special Session, Leaders Ask For Break And Relocation

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-04-28 16:46

Immediately after the Legislature gaveled out of their extended regular session, Gov. Bill Walker called them back in for a special one. APRN’s Alexandra Gutierrez reports.

On Tuesday morning, legislators — some reluctantly, some bedraggled, and some remarkably chipper — reconvened at 10 a.m., for five-minute floor sessions. They received a message from the governor, asking them to do three things: expand Medicaid, create a sexual abuse prevention program for schools, and pass a budget that pays for government for a whole year.

Rather than launch straight into committee hearings, lawmakers then broke up into a series of closed-door meetings. There were caucus meetings, leadership meetings, and meetings with the governor. House Speaker Mike Chenault said he broached the idea of taking a two-week recess and then reconvening back in Anchorage, noting that construction is scheduled to start on the Capitol building in a matter of days.

As that all was happening, Walker’s new budget dropped. It reverses the Legislature’s freeze on cost-of-living raises for public employees. It restores some money for education, but still included his original cut of $32 million of one-time funding for schools. And, predictably, it also includes language that lets the state accept federal dollars to expand Alaska’s Medicaid program.

In all, it adds $90 million in state spending that had been cut by the Legislature, amounting to a 2 percent increase in money used from the unrestricted general fund.

His budget also requires a draw from the constitutional budget reserve — the hard-to-access rainy day fund responsible for a stalemate in the first place. The $10 billion account requires a three-quarter vote for a withdrawal, which means at least some minority Democrats have to vote for it. They have said in budget negotiations that their support is conditional on increased funding for education and Medicaid expansion.

The House Finance Committee is scheduled to hear that budget bill on Wednesday.

Categories: Alaska News

A Moving Target: Stopping Booze at the River

APRN Alaska News - Tue, 2015-04-28 11:44

Akiak Tribal Policeman Ryan Jackson staffed a checkpoint this winter intended to intercept alcohol before it entered the community. Photo by Ben Matheson / KYUK.

Citizens in Bethel are weighing a decision on a proposal for the for the first liquor store in decades. In the shadow of the debate is a powerful and elaborate bootlegging economy across the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.

The region’s three Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Taskforce investigators can’t be everywhere at once. Some villages are trying to fill in gaps where bootlegged alcohol reaches dry option communities. In the second of a three-part series on the law enforcements efforts to stem the flow of alcohol to the region KYUK’s Ben Matheson reports on Akiak’s tribal approach.

On a bright spring day overlooking the frozen Kuskokwim River, Akiak Tribal Policeman Ryan Jackson explains how this low-tech checkpoints work. It’s intended to stop alcohol at the doorstep to the community, and it’s basically Jackson, a 4-wheeler, and a badge.

“I just hold it up and say ‘Stop, this is a checkpoint,” said Jackson.

For the past two winters, the village has set up a checkpoint where snow machines and trucks come in off the Kuskokwim River. Jackson and others make sure to have coverage for big traffic days like basketball tournaments and dog races, as well as paydays from local employers. When the community is flush with cash, that’s when they know people will make the trip to Bethel, coming back with alcohol, which fetches 80 dollars a bottle in Akiak.

Jackson says his methods change depending on the weather and trail conditions.

“4 wheeler, sno-go, truck, either one. The sno-go is easier to chase with,” said Jackson

That is, if someone flees:

“You chase after them,” said Jackson.

Leaders say they’ve seized 500 bottles coming into Akiak this past winter. An agreement with tribes in nearby Akiachak, Tuluksak, and Kwethluk  allows for similar efforts.

Mike Williams, a tribal advocate, alcohol counselor, and Iditarod dog musher says the matter is extremely personal to him–he’s lost all six of his brothers to alcohol.

“It’s a small community. We know who (the bootleggers) are. When a person brings in the booze from the next village, with today’s technology of instant communication, with texting and everything, we know who’s dealing,” said Williams.

Tragedy was evident this winter when three Akiak people who had been drinking drove their 4-wheeler through a storm into an open hole on the Kuskokwim and drowned. Surrounded by millions of acres of tundra, back trails, and side sloughs, Akiak’s not going to catch every last bottle. Williams says bootleggers know that as well as anyone.

“They have been getting real smart too,” said Williams. “They’re using communication to do the transaction outside of Akiak.”

For Williams, taking an aggressive stance in the village is part of a broad push to regain local tribal control after legislation fractured jurisdiction. Williams says it has prevented tribes from having meaningful power at home.

“We’ve lost so much control over the long years but we need to have that control back and take our lives back,” said Williams.

While they are willing to share information with state troopers, Akiak takes a distinctly tribal approach to follow up with those caught bootlegging. They’re brought in front of tribal court judges, like 72-year-old Elizabeth Lake.

“It’s good to talk. (We) have someone to talk to them in the village, instead of having troopers come around,” said Lake.

Lake says people caught running alcohol may face fines or community service, but keeping them out of jail and closer to home helps in the long run. Jackson Williams is another tribal court judge.

“We’re the community that wants to really go after people that bootleg to bring in booze to sell. We take care of it our way,” said Williams.

And that way raises privacy concerns regarding checkpoints. But Williams takes a broader perspective.

“When we first started, people were saying what about my civil rights, what about my rights as an individual? And we say-what about the rights of our children, the rights of our women, the rights of people to have a healthy community? What about the rights of people who are not using being effected? What about their rights?,” said Williams.

State law enforcement doesn’t get involved in the checking. Investigator Todd Moehring from the state’s Western Alaska Alcohol and Narcotics Team says the checkpoint is strictly a tribal initiative.

“I applaud their efforts. They’re doing a great job trying to take an active role in combating bootlegging, which has been really good. It has cut down on the calls we’ve gotten, they’ve been stepping it up, trying to process things tribally,” said Moehring.

Chance Cunningham, worked as a Village Public Safety Officer in Akiak for two years. VPSO’s are not employed by the tribe.  He says his only role at the checkpoint is to stand by.

“I just sat in the distance, in the shadows, in the hopes that nothing bad would happen, that I would have to be there because I have the tools and training,” said Cunningham.

On the front lines, TPO Jackson thinks it’s working.

“It’s less work if we get the bottles before they go out,” said Jackson.

And to keep the bottles from entering his community, Jackson will watch where the Kuskokwim meets his village.

Categories: Alaska News

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