The month of May clearly brought more sunshine to the Petersburg area. It is especially noticeable after April, which broke the record for being the rainiest.
The average rainfall for the month of April is about six inches but this year it was double that at 12.31 inches. That was enough rain to break the record from 1952 of just over 11 inches.
Richard Lam is a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Juneau. He says this April mimicked a fall month.
“Normally, in April, usually the weather pattern is not like this so this is more like a fall weather pattern,” Lam says. “Twelve inches of rainfall in the fall for you guys is normal but in April that’s atypical.”
So, with April being the rainiest on record will this drier weather continue?
Although the Juneau Weather Service doesn’t forecast beyond seven days the Climate Prediction Center in Washington D.C. does. Lam says that data shows May to be warmer than normal but they still don’t know about the rain.
“They are calling for May to be more likely to be seeing above normal temperatures so a warmer than normal May,” Lam says, “and precipitation they are calling for equal chances. That means there will be equal chance for above normal or below normal precipitation so it can be anything.”
The rainy April follows an exceptionally warm winter season when there was more rain and less snow than normal for Petersburg.
Few people turned out for a Matanuska Susitna Borough public hearing on the FY 2016 budget on Monday evening. But a divide is brewing between those who want to hold the mil rate steady, and those who say more services will require a nudge in property taxes.
The meeting at the Borough’s Emergency Services building in Wasilla could not compete with the sun drenched spring evening. Only six people showed up to speak, and three of them worked for the Borough. Ken Slauson, chair of the Central Fire Service Area board, bemoaned the fact that much needed emergency services and fire protection positions are not included in next year’s spending package.
“We also made a request for an additional driver operator position as a new position, and a reclassification of one of the captains to be reclassified downwards to be a driver operator. I find out last week, through the grapevine, that those positions are not going to be presented to you as the Assembly,” Slauson said.
Two other Borough emergency services workers echoed his comments. But one woman, Patricia Fisher, told the Assembly that because of the Borough’s senior property tax exemption, she’s not paying any taxes at all.
“I am now paying zero taxes. I think there is something wrong with this. I should be paying something. Maybe not the full amount, I don’t know. I would have thought that somewhere the staff would have realized that this was going to hurt you. Mr. Moosey has said that this is going to contribute to the budget shortfall.”
A senior and disabled property tax exemption passed by the Assembly last year is costing the Borough about ten million dollars in lost revenues this year. But Assembyman Ron Arvin defended the exemption.
“And, although it is rare, individuals have lost their homes because of that. And when we took this question up, there was a detailed discussion about basing it on need. …. And I think it is more important as a society, that we have in place an opportunity for people to own their land, without the risk of the government taking it for taxes.”
Others who spoke suggested a sales tax would help boost Borough revenues. Assemblyman Jim Sykes agreed. Sykes and Assemblyman Matthew Beck had hosted an informal listening session with constituents a week earlier.
“But what people are really wanting, that I think came out of our listening session, that I think is one of the most important things that we heard, was, ‘let’s look at other revenue sources.’ And the sales tax idea seemed to be pretty popular. There wasn’t anybody who said, ‘don’t do this.'”
But the $400,722,754 spending package now on the table is likely to morph into something else before final Assembly approval.
Borough manager John Moosey says the flat mil rate cannot sustain growing expenses.
“I believe that we have worked very hard to charge as little as possible for services, and with our ongoing risks and some loss in revenue, we cannot continue to keep doing that,” Moosey said.
But Borough mayor Larry DeVilbiss has other ideas:
“I think the manager’s budget was a good place to start, but I was not implying that that is a good place to start going up.. it could go either way. But when that areawide mil rate gets over ten mils, you can be looking for red ink.”
A second public hearing is set for May 7 in Willow, and a third for Palmer next week.
Climate researchers say a giant mass of warm water in the Pacific Ocean may be responsible for unusual sightings of marine life in the North Pacific while also influencing North American weather patterns.
Nicholas Bond, a climatologist for Washington state and a research scientist at the University of Washington’s Joint Institute for the Study of Atmosphere and Ocean, came up with the 1950s sci-fi movie inspired nickname The Blob for the huge, evolving mass of warm ocean water.
“I started seeing this very unusually warm water in a semicircular patch about a year ago,” Bond says.
He says down to a depth of a hundred meters temperatures have increased more than two degrees Celsius since the fall of 2013.
“It was a big event,” Bond says, adding that it was the biggest anomaly seen in the last 18 years.
In a paper published last month in the Geophysical Research Letters, Bond and his co-authors say it was caused by a lingering high pressure system that normally inhibits cloud formation and precipitation. The high pressure over the eastern North Pacific blocked the usual parade of winter storms, diverted surface winds and prevented the usual ocean cooling.
“Also, the weird direction of the winds meant that in the region of The Blob there’s more warm water coming up from the south than usual to make it warmer there,” Bond says.
The Blob wasn’t the sole cause, but Bond says it could’ve helped divert frigid Arctic air to the Great Lakes Region last winter. It also could have contributed to a dry West Coast and mild winters along the Alaska coast, simultaneously bumming out skiers and snowboarders and pleasing municipal managers overseeing street snow removal budgets.
“It makes more sense that — in the short-term development phase — the atmosphere drives the sea surface temperatures in this part of the world,” says Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the National Weather Service in Fairbanks.
Thoman says they’re seeing those higher temperatures deeper in the ocean, not just at the surface.
“That means that’s not likely to change in the short term, say a few month change,” Thoman says. “That warm water extends through a depth of the ocean and that will take a while to change.”
Bond calls it thermal inertia, and he warns that we may see the effects of The Blob even through next winter.
“So, it’s not due to climate change. But it’s a taste of what we’re going to be getting more of in future decades,” Bond says. “I look at it as an opportunity to learn about what climate change is liable to bring us.”
Over the last two winters, The Blob has moved and stretched out along the western coast from the Gulf of Alaska to Baja California. It’s unclear how it will affect juvenile salmon now heading out to the open ocean and mature salmon returning to Alaska streams this summer.
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott says British Columbia officials seem “sincere” about protecting transboundary rivers near provincial mines.
Many Alaskans are concerned about potential damage to Unuk, Stikine and Taku river fisheries if the mines release toxic materials. All start in B.C. and enter the ocean along the Southeast coast.
Mallott said the tone turned somber when they discussed the Mount Polley Mine, where a large dam collapsed last August, sending silt and mud into nearby waterways.
“They were very serious about learning from the incident. They have made at least a ministerial … commitment that that type of accident will never occur again,” he said in a cellphone call from the Victoria, B.C., airport.
Mallott visits the Mount Polley area this week as he meets with government officials, industry representatives and tribal leaders.
He said he talked with the mining and environment ministers about information collected in watersheds before mining starts. That can be compared to later data to measure pollution.
In B.C., that information is often gathered by mining companies.
“We talked a little bit about whether some of that data should be obtained by the respective governments themselves,” he said.
Alaska Gov. Bill Walker earlier this year designated Mallott to lead an internal transboundary waters working group. It includes commissioners of the Departments of Environmental Conservation, Fish and Game, and Natural Resources.
Mallott also said B.C. Mining Minister Bill Bennett accepted an invitation to visit Southeast Alaska. Bennett promised a visit earlier this year, but it hasn’t happened.
A delegation of Southeast Alaska tribal and environmental activists are also in British Columbia for what’s called Mining Week. Some will cross paths with the lieutenant governor.
Over the past four days, we have brought you stories that go out into the field for an in-depth look at Alaska’s rural sanitation situation – a series we call “Kick the Bucket.” We have seen how the lack of modern sanitation is linked to disease as people strain the limits of their clean water supply. And we have looked at the implications of decreasing funding and looming maintenance expenses in villages with a limited cash economy. Today we’ll wrap up the series by trying to look into the future.
As he watches his two-year-old Brandon race around, Adolf Lupie, of Tuntutuliak said his grandson is pretty much recovered from pneumonia after being medevacked to Anchorage.
“I’m a grandfather now. He’s my first boy grandchild. So I’m really proud of my little grandchild,” said Lupie.”He gets sick. I know my parents used to tell me that when they’re kids, they’ll get into sickness in their younger days. But when they get older they’re more immune to sickness.”
In communities without running water and flush toilets, 11 times more children develop pneumonia than other Alaskans, and some develop complications that can lead to lifelong respiratory problems. High rates of respiratory and skin infections are due to the shortage of clean water needed for frequent hand-washing.
Federal and state funding isn’t keeping up with the need, and the situation is likely to get worse due to climate change. Colleen Swan, of Kivalina, said villagers had seen the effects on the sea ice that protected the village from fierce fall storms. But they were shocked by the tidal surge and flooding that slammed their small barrier island and carried away acres of land.
“We know there is a huge problem. It’s getting worse,” said Swan. “It’s going faster. It’s like a huge train that is picking up speed. Our train hit in 2004 and we have been dealing with the aftermath of that. So even if people are in denial, that doesn’t change the fact that it is a reality.
Gavin Dixon, with the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium said melting permafrost is affecting existing systems – with flooding that’s affecting water sources, and high algae growth clogging filters.
“We’re having homes where we have connections to homes with Arctic pipes,” said Dixon. “Homes will settle and the pipes don’t so there’s differential settling and the pipes will break away from the houses.
In Alakanuck the Yukon River is eating away at the shore, leaving residents wondering what will become of their water and sewer system.
Village Safe Water facilities program director Bill Griffith said agencies are working with the communities with the highest public health risks first, such as communities that have already lost critical elements of sanitation systems.
“We’ve got communities that have lost their water sources or lost the water line that used to be on the beach that’s eroded. We’re trying to get after those first, but it’s almost like a triage situation right now,” said Griffith. “We don’t have the funds to be able deal with everything we know is going to be affected over the next 20 years so we’re trying to work with the ones that are affected right now.”
Rural communities are also struggling to cover maintenance and operating costs. Dixon said a big part of those costs is fuel. He said spending some money up front would save more later.
“We estimate it will take $80,000 per community to reduce and save $15,000 each year, for new controls, parts replacement,” said Dixon. “The benefit to communities is pretty real.”
The consortium is working on using new construction methods to save money. Dixon cites a building that was first built, then broken into modules for transport and re-construction in a village.
“This is going to be just over a million dollars for this project here. Traditional methods of constructing entire water treatment plants like we’ve done can be anywhere upwards of three to five million dollars, depending on the size of the community. Akiak’s fairly small so it’s probably on the low end of there,” said Dixon.
“Another advantage of this is that in a community where they may have a water plant that is in danger of eroding or they have to move,” said Dixon. “You can cut the pipes off and move the water plant. You can’t do that with traditional construction methodologies.
In Kotzebue, Maniilaq hospital administrator Paul Hanson said modern sanitation will do a lot to improve public health, but he notes good health is also linked to jobs and to culturally appropriate care. “I think the biggest challenge that we face is really being able to care for ourselves,” said Hanson. “When I say that,” he continued, I mean not only just actually our daily habits and that sort of thing but developing our own work force, and having folks from our region taking care of people from this region”
Meanwhile, Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation president Dan Winkelman hasn’t lost hope that Congress, or the state Legislature will come through.
“That’s why it’s even that much more important right now to get the policy makers out here so they can actually realize that we’re getting so close,” said Winkelman. “We only have 4,500 more homes in the state of Alaska and we’re getting so close to closing that gap that even that much more effort and determination is needed now just to close that last gap.”
Innovation has been slow to come for rural sanitation in Alaska, and just as it has begun to appear, so has a dramatic reduction in state revenues. Everyone talks about planning for more “resiliency” in the face of climate change, but those who actually work with the problem speak more in terms of “triage.” Whether they will end up gaining ground or losing it remains to be seen.
The start of the cruise ship season brings a new excursion from one of the oldest tour outfits in Southeast. Allen Marine Tours is set to run hovercraft trips to the Taku Glacier starting this week.
It’s been about 20 years since Allen Marine last brought visitors to the Taku Glacier, located near Juneau at the head of Taku Inlet. John Dunlap is vice president of Allen Marine Tours. He says the company used to go to the glacier with a large catamaran back in the 1990s.
“We would get as close to the glacier as we could, which at a low tide was several miles away and at a higher tide, we could maybe get within a few miles of the face of the glacier,” Dunlap says. “So it was kind of a pretty variable experience.”
So variable that Allen Marine stopped doing it after a few years.
“But we always thought, ‘Gosh, if we had the right kind of vehicle, we’d like to come back up here and do this better,’” Dunlap says.
Allen Marine bought a hovercraft from a Washington company last year and started experimenting with it.
“It doesn’t matter whether the tide’s out or not. You can travel with equal ease over water or if you’ve got to pass over shallow water and sand bars, that’s fine, too,” Dunlap says.
The hovercraft will soon start carrying paying customers. The 4-hour tour includes more than an hour on the hovercraft. Tourists leave from downtown Juneau on a jet-powered catamaran to lower Taku Inlet, where Allen Marine will have a larger ship staged that serves as the hover base. There, tourists will transfer into an 8-person hovercraft which will take them close to the face of the glacier, where they disembark for 30 minutes.
The whole trip costs more than $300 per adult. Dunlap admits it’s quite a bit more than Allen Marine’s established whale watching tours and Tracy Arm trips.
“For us, it’s a little bit more like having a helicopter tour which tend to be fairly expensive tours because of the equipment involved than what we’ve traditionally done with boat tours that have higher capacity and are a little bit more efficient to run,” says Dunlap.
Hovercrafts travel on a trapped bubble of air. Dunlap describes it as a small barge that sits on an inflated rubber skirt. Allen Marine hopes to have three running this summer. It has one now and has ordered two more. Each one is 22 feet long and about 10 feet wide. Dunlap says they don’t make any more noise than a boat of similar size.
Ron Maas owns 150 acres on the Taku River. He says he bought the property about 20 years ago because of its direct view of the glacier. He’s not excited about the new Allen Marine tours.
“That puts a whole different light on that property of ours. We consider it something very special but, Jesus, if we have to listen to this all the time, it’s not going to be much fun.
There’s so much traffic up there now that it’s a constant thing,” Maas says.
Maas acknowledges his role in the traffic and noise near the glacier. He’s the former owner of the Taku Glacier Lodge. Visitors to Juneau are brought there by float planes.
“I had 14 aircraft when I sold out and, of course, we made eight trips a day with each airplane, so I really can’t complain a lot about noise, but we tried to control the noise the best we could,” Maas says.
He also doesn’t like the idea of seeing people walk near the face of the glacier. Dunlap says Allen Marine has state and federal permits allowing people to walk in that area.
Juneau commercial fisherman Jim Becker is wondering if the hovercraft will affect juvenile salmon coming out of the Taku River. He’s been gillnetting for Taku River salmon for 40 years.
“The concern is we have outmigrating smolt coming out of the river and some fry, and I don’t know what the depth is in front of the glacier and what kind of water depth they’re going to be operating in, so I think that needs to be checked out,” Becker says.
Alaska Fish and Game biologist Leon Shaul doesn’t foresee any issues.
“In that area near Taku Glacier, I wouldn’t think it would have much impact,” Shaul says. “That’s a pretty open area and tidal influenced, so I wouldn’t imagine it’d be a lot different than a boat.”
Dunlap says Allen Marine will not be going up the river.
He says cruise ship passengers have already started signing up for the hovercraft tours. As interest grows, Dunlap expects Allen Marine to operate consistent tours within a few weeks.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray says the Port of Seattle can’t host Royal Dutch Shell’s offshore Arctic oil-drilling fleet unless it gets a new land-use permit.
Shell has been hoping to base its fleet at the port’s Terminal 5. Environmentalists have already sued over the plan, saying the port broke state law in February when it signed a two-year lease with Foss Maritime, which is working with Shell.
At a breakfast for a clean-energy group on Monday, Murray said city planners reviewed the planned use of Terminal 5 as a base for the drilling fleet and found that it would violate the port’s land-use permit, which allows a cargo terminal on the site.
Shell has argued that its planned activities at the terminal – such as docking, equipment loading and crew changes – are no more environmentally risky than loading or unloading shipping containers.
Alaska’s largest tribal government has joined an international effort to boost Native influence in the United Nations.
The Juneau-based Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska wants a larger forum to address its concerns.
The U.N. has focused attention on indigenous issues in recent years, such as returning artifacts to tribes and preventing violence against women.
Jacqueline Johnson-Pata is executive director of the National Congress of American Indians, as well as part of the central council’s leadership.
She told a recent tribal assembly that a more formal arrangement is needed.
“Tribes and governments, elected representatives of indigenous nations, should have a voice in the United Nations. We shouldn’t just go as an organization. But we should go as a representative government,” she says.
Central Council First Vice President Will Micklin agrees.
“We are a nation with longstanding international relations with other countries and have issues that cross boundaries,” he says.
Micklin is also CEO for an Indian band near San Diego and executive director of the California Association of Tribal Governments. He’s a strong advocate of United Nations involvement.
“The only way to address these issues like climate change, like water resources, like fisheries, like the environmental impacts of extractive industries is to engage in the international arena,” he says.
The 30,000-member central council is part of a nationwide movement pursuing increased involvement in the United Nations. It’s been active for several years.
Micklin says the effort stems from the U.N.’s 2007 Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which also targets discrimination and human-rights violations.
“We envision and have proposed to the secretary general all rights and privileges for indigenous governments the same as a member state,” he says.
That would put tribal members on committees and allow them to submit reports.
“The only distinction is we would not be able to vote as a member state in the general assembly,” he says.
He says tribal governments have met with U.N. and federal officials, and they’ve found support.
Terry Sloan is director of the New Mexico-based group Southwest Native Cultures. The Navajo-Hopi, who already serves on United Nations committees, says more outreach is needed.
“What’s happening is that a lot of the tribes aren’t fully aware of this declaration, what it means and what it contains. So there is going to be some sort of an educational process throughout the country,” he says.
He also says many indigenous groups outside the U.S. aren’t aware of the effort. Many have faced violence when attempting any form of organization.
Sloan just returned from a meeting following up on the U.N.’s World Conference on Indigenous Peoples.
He says there was no consensus and years could go by before formal recognition happens. But he remains optimistic.
“When and if and how long it takes to get the implementation process through, we will see great gains for the Native Americans of the United States,” he says.
Sloan says despite differences, the Obama administration is very supportive of the U.N. effort.
He says the U.S. could become a model for other countries’ tribal government roles in the international organization.
Hundreds of climbers are expected to attempt North America’s tallest peak this season, and National Park Service rangers are ready to live on the mountain for the next three months to help with rescues.
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports about 1,200 people try to reach Denali’s summit each year, and about half succeed.
Last season, that number was a low 36 percent due to bad weather. Data shows one climber died and 32 required medical attention.
National Park Service spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri is stationed at Talkeetna, which is at the mountain’s base at Denali National Park. In her first daily blog posted April 24, she said the knee-deep snow was soft and thinned out at the mountain’s highest elevations to slightly less than normal.
Alaska State Troopers are investigating the shooting death of 69-year-old Jimmy Gojdics, an outdoorsman and character on National Geographic’s reality show “Ultimate Survival.”
The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner reports officers responded to Gojdics’s residence in Fox Sunday to find the victim suffering from gunshot wounds. He was transported to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital where he was pronounced dead.
Trooper spokesman Tim Despain said officers are investigating the death as a homicide.
State troopers say a woman died when her 4-wheeler flipped twice and threw her from the vehicle. 34-year-old Merna Spein was driving down main street in Upper Kalskag Saturday afternoon when she lost control.
A witness says Spein was the only person on the 4-wheeler when it crashed. She was not wearing a helmet and suffered head trauma.
Spein was taken to the clinic in Upper Kalskag and pronounced dead.
Troopers say alcohol was involved.
Spein’s body is being sent to the state medical examiners office for an autopsy.
Troopers say the body thought to be an Akiak woman who died last year when a 4-wheeler went into an open hole on the Kuskokwim River near Kwethluk has been recovered.
On Sunday remains believed to be Sally Stone were found near the crash site. Her body is being sent to the state medical examiner’s office for an autopsy.
Twenty-seven-year-old Stone of Akiak was traveling with 51-year-old Ralph Demantle and 26-year-old George Evan in December from Bethel through a snowstorm. The vehicle went into an open lead in the ice. Troopers say alcohol was a factor in the deaths.
Demantle’s body was recovered in December, and searchers found Evan in January.
Unalaska will get a big population boost this weekend, with the first cruise ship of what’s shaping up to be a busy summer.
On Sunday, the 781-foot Crystal Symphony will tie up at the Coast Guard dock and offload the most passengers Unalaska has ever seen — around a thousand people, as many as a quarter of the town’s residents.
Normally, the state ferry marks the start of summer in the Aleutians. But this year, the aging ferry Tustumena is in shipyard for repairs — its first scheduled stop in Unalaska is now May 23. And state budget cuts could mean fewer sailings overall after that.
Unalaska visitor’s bureau director Cathy Jordan says a shorter ferry season will have a big impact on the Aleutian Chain — for tourists and residents alike.
“A lot of people like to come out on the ferry, stay for a day or two, maybe fly back on [PenAir], or they’ll take the ferry back the same day,” Jordan says. “But also important for the Chain is for the smaller communities that get on the ferry along the way and come out here and shop, and then bring goods back to their hometown. And that also impacts our businesses.”
But she’s hoping more cruise ships might help fill the gap. 2015 will be Unalaska’s longest, busiest cruise season ever — the Crystal Symphony is the first of eight ships with scheduled stops. One, in September, will bring 2,000 passengers to town.
“I’m a little concerned about how we’re going to be able to accommodate that many people on the island for that amount of time,” Jordan says. “They don’t always all disembark, so hopefully we’ll be able to scatter them throughout the island at one time. You know, our tourist destinations can’t hold but 150, 200 people. So we’ll try to keep them busy with some other alternatives.”
She’s calling in extra buses and working with the town’s few restaurants and museums to organize special events. She’ll also have volunteers on hand to help guide explorers. Jordan says that small-town feel is one advantage Unalaska has over bigger ports.
“I’ve seen many people stop and talk to cruise ship passengers and give directions, or give an idea of what to do next,” she says. “Or even when we have a group of birders in from a cruise ship, they’ll ask, ‘Where can I find this bird?’ And I’ve seen local people [say] ‘Oh, go down this road and take a right,’ you know, so it’s really great.”
Of course, Unalaska’s main draw is as a fuel stop. It’s the first big port of call for ships crossing the Pacific from Asia.
The Crystal Symphony is one of those. It’s en route from Tokyo to Vancouver, with stops in Kodiak, Seward and Ketchikan after it leaves the Aleutians.
The Anchorage School Board passed an amended budget on Monday night for the 2015-16 school year. They voted to move $1 million from the Charter School Facility Fund into the budget to lessen the blow of potential legislative funding cuts and retain ten more teachers.
In February, the school board passed a $784 million budget based on HB 278 – education funding promised by the legislature last year.
In April, the state legislature removed some of that promised funding. That meant the Anchorage School District needed to cut $16.7 million from their adopted budget.
On Monday night, the School Board had to use those not-yet-final state funding numbers to pass an amended budget for the 2015-2016 school year. They decided to soften the blow by moving $1 million from the Charter School Facility Fund created in December to retain ten teachers for kindergarten through second grade.
Board member Pat Higgins says it’s important to prioritize early literacy and send a message to teachers that they want to support them.
“By voting for this now, we’re letting people know that [there will be] ten less layoff notices for teachers, our priority is education – the teachers in the classroom. And we’re adding a little bit more stability to the process” of staffing for next year.
The Board had to pass the amended budget in order to start the staffing process and to send out pink slips to tenured teachers by May 15.
The newest incarnation of the budget does not include money for team planning time for middle school elective teachers nor for 20 new teachers for the whole district.
Anchorage Education Association President Andy Holleman says principals will find out how many teachers each school is allotted on Tuesday morning. They’ll have to decide which teachers they want to retain by Wednesday. Displaced teachers who want to stay with the district will be placed next week.
Some school board members are still hopeful the legislature will add some education funding back into the state budget.
Anchorage votersturned out in record numbers to cast early ballots in Tuesday’s mayoral runoff election. But the figures don’t necessarily mean a big overall turn out.
By mid-day Monday, the city had broken its record for early and absentee votes in a local election.
“We are at 11,167,” said Deputy Clerk for Elections Amanda Moser of the early votes and requests for ballots by mail.
That’s around 3,000 more early votes than were cast last month at this time ahead of the initial mayoral election with a broad field of candidates.
More than 20 people stood in line at the Loussac Library around lunch-time Monday to cast early ballots. The daily numbers of early voters have just about doubled at the polling site compared to past elections, according to Sharron McCracken, an elections official. She attributes the growth to a mix of the mayor’s race getting more interesting in the last month, better promotion from the city Clerk’s office, and plain old convenience.
“Most (people) seem to be just thrilled that they can do it on their schedule,” McCracken said in the library lobby, the line winding past the door, “just real happy to get it out of the way.”
McCracken is quick to counter that increased early returns are no guarantee of high turnout on election day, something she saw in the April election this year.
“Last election we thought for sure the percentage of voters would have been way higher,” McCracken recalled, “and yet then the final total was still only like 27% turnout.” 27.93% to be exact.
“I’m hoping it’ll end up higher,” she added, “but I really don’t have a clue.”
McCracken is not alone in her uncertainty. No public polling data has surfaced in the last month, making it difficult to say which candidate has an edge. With lower turnout, the margins between victory and defeat shrink. In the April election the space between top candidates Ethan Berkowitz and Amy Demboski was just 7,385 votes. Now, margins like that could determine who’s in charge of Alaska’s largest city for the next three years.
Alaska’s largest city has passed its budget.
But not without vetoes coming from the mayor’s office and a last minute deal over money connected to a utility the Administration has proposed privatizing.
The final budget agreed to is $483.6 million. Getting there required a minor skirmish that Assembly Member Elvi Gray-Jackson called “messy.”
A number of new staff positions added through Assembly revisions to the Mayor’s budget were dropped. In exchange, the Mayor’s administration halved the amount it sought to transfer from a trash-collecting utility’s cash surplus.
“The final compromise was that instead of taking $4 million from Solid Waste Services we only took $2 (million) for property tax relief,” Gray-Jackson said after the meeting. “But the public safety vetoes were maintained.”
Gray-Jackson was one of a handful of a Assembly members that challenged the mayor’s budget during a meeting last week. They objected to the proposed fund transfer from SWS’s surplus, and added in line items worth $735,580 that many on the Assembly see as public safety necessities, including more dog-catchers, a homelessness coordinator, and a senior planner to handle new zoning issues arising from growing marijuana within the municipality.
The budget battle highlights a tension that’s been a recurrent theme in Anchorage city politics during Sullivan’s administration: public safety spending versus fiscal prudence.
Many believe the Administration’s emphasis on reducing the cost of government has become excessive given the Municipality’s growth
“You can’t expect the same amount of services for the same cost with a population that is no longer 200,000, but more than 300,000,” Gray-Jackson said. “It’s doesn’t cost the same.”
But the Administration maintains it is irresponsible to pay for new positions right now. Though this year’s budget is a 1.4% rise over last year’s, it’s still $1,619,555 below the tax-cap, something that Mayor Dan Sullivan believes is important amid a worsening financial outlook for the state.
“We didn’t want to see additional spending and adding of personnel at a time when we’re pretty sure we’re going to see some reduction in revenue sharing and additional state funding,” Sullivan said of his decision to veto the new staff positions.
The Assembly ultimately approved the final version of the revised budget.
That’s the opening line of Juneau resident Stuart Cohen’s new novel “This Is How it Really Sounds.” This is Cohen’s sixth book and it’s hitting bookstores now. While the opening line hints at the novel’s theme, Cohen says the book revolves around three main characters.
“One is the world extreme skiing champion circa 1982 who’s almost not seen at all in the book. Another is this faded rock star in his mid-forties who has lost all his money and is an alcoholic. And another is this disgraced financier who’s living large in Shanghai on his ill-gotten hundreds and millions of dollars and is hated the world over.”
Cohen says that connecting the three characters was a challenge, but it worth it. He says this novel is a departure from his previous books.
“I’ve written four other novels and especially the last two were basically set ‘em up knock ‘em down books. You set everything up and it’s like dominoes and you get the last 50 or 60 pages and you just start knocking them down one by one and it’s very exciting. And it’s fun, and you know what you’re doing when you’re writing it. But this book, it has a climax, but it doesn’t move like that conventional plot.”
Stuart Cohen’s new novel “This Is How it Really Sounds.”Cohen is available online and will be in bookstores soon.
What if you didn’t have piped water and sewer, and the government wasn’t picking up the tab to get you some. How would you find a low-cost system that you could keep running through the winter? In the fourth segment of “Kick the Bucket,” find out how experts are looking for answers to rural sanitation issues in Alaska.
Villagers and people in the water and sewer business can name dozens of ways systems have failed due to parts that shattered in the cold, say, or components that had to be flown in from Europe and installed by a Lower 48 specialist.
Keeping it simple is not necessarily the solution when haul systems, where people pay by the gallon to get water delivered and waste picked up, leave them using as little water as possible, far below the 15 gallons a day needed for frequent hand washing. Brian Lefferts is environmental health and engineering director at the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corporation:
“We recognize that there are some places that the geology, the area won’t allow for piped water and sewer to the home, but that the small haul system the way it is just currently isn’t working, so there’s a push to do research and development in that area to try to find a solution for those homes,” Lefferts says.
Some of the push is coming from the state, which is putting up money for innovative solutions through the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge. Bill Griffith is the Alaska Village Safe Water facilities manager:
“We’ve established some performance targets that include things like sufficient water for health, affordable operation, feasible capital costs, constructability, long-term operability,” Griffith says. “We’ve also got some evaluation criteria like the requirement to go out and get user input from communities, and also we’re looking for some innovative approaches to design.”
The state has funded six teams to develop detailed proposals. Speaking from his office in Tok, Summit Consulting’s founder David Cramer says recycled water will be part of theirs:
“Water that comes from your washing machine, from your shower, that water can be recycled. It can be used to flush a toilet. It can used to do laundry again, and so on.”
The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation is seeking funding through crowd-sourcing to work on its proposed solution. Lefferts says recycled water is in their plans too:
“We’re hoping that by reducing the number of hauls that are necessary by retreating the water within the home, we’ll be able to make it affordable to the point where people won’t conserve water.”
Another popular idea is mini-water and sewage treatment plants installed at each home.
Standalone systems for several homes in Kivalina are the goal of an Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium project begun a few years ago. Project manager John Warren says this summer they’ll install equipment that funnels filtered rain water into a tank in the house, and plumbing fixtures that conserve water. Because flooding is forcing villagers to relocate, Warren says the system is portable, giving the water treatment system as an example:
“It has filters. You can put some chlorine in the water and it’s in full compliance with the EPA requirements, and it’s safe. The treatment system that we’re providing is also mobile. They can actually take it with them to fish camp. It has an electric pump for ease of use, or it has a hand pump if there is no electricity,” Warren says.
As for sewage, ANTHC plans call for the separation of liquids and solids, and treatment of the solids to reduce the number of trips needed for disposal.
While the competitors have been asked to keep details confidential, Summit Consulting’s Cramer says reliability will come from sticking with the tried and true:
“I don’t think anybody expects to use space-age technology. What will go into these things will be products that are already on the shelf someplace and the idea here is to combine them integrate them in a way that’s unique.”
Lefferts says he’s optimistic the Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge will result in new options but he hopes those don’t become the only choice for all rural communities:
“There are still a number of homes that are unserved that could easily be served with traditional pipes and gravity sewer mains. And we know that system works and can be cost effective. And we strongly encourage that we continue to fund construction projects to serve those homes using traditional water and sewer construction methods.”
A few Alaska Water and Sewer Challenge teams will be funded to further develop their projects into 2018. But innovative alternatives are just one part of what’s lying ahead. Next time, in Kick the Bucket, we’ll find out more about what the future holds.
The first big cruise ship of the 2015 tourist season arrived in Ketchikan on Friday.
In its inaugural visit to Alaska’s First City, the Ruby Princess brought more than 3,000 passengers and about 1,200 crew members.
Lewis Banda is from Los Angeles, and had just gotten off the 952-foot-long cruise ship. He was snapping photos of his traveling companions as they waited for their tour bus.
“I came with my best friend and my wife,” he said. “We were actually interested since I was a kid, going to the Klondike, Jack London and all that stuff. It was one of my bucket list things to do.”
Banda said he’s excited to finally be in Alaska, and remarked how clean and crisp the air felt compared to L.A.
“I was a weirded out a little bit with the sun going down at 9 o’clock, and then it was 4 o’clock in the morning and I could clearly see outside. That was great. It was mind-blowing, actually,” he said.
When asked about the cold, not-quite-rainy weather that morning, he said, “This is
what I wanted. I didn’t want anything sunny. I just wanted to feel the moisture in the air, I wanted to see the mossiness of it. It’s really breathtaking. I told my friend like three times, I couldn’t believe how beautiful it is.”
Banda and his friends were taking a five-hour tour through some national forest land, and then they’ll watch the popular Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show before getting back on board the Ruby Princess to leave by late afternoon.
In addition to cruise ship passengers, tour representatives were on the dock, selling tours and rounding up clients to make sure they get on the right bus.
Joe Linehan works for Lighthouse Eagles and Totems Excursions.
“I’m here as a dock rep today, but that’s not my normal function,” he said. “I’m a captain, (and) I usually skipper the Totem Princess.”
Linehan and his wife are longtime seasonal residents of Ketchikan. They come back every year to work in the tourism industry.
“This is our 12th year, my wife and I coming up here to work,” he said. “This is our second home. As a matter of fact, we spend more time in Ketchikan than we do at our home in Florida.”
A little ways away, but within sight of the big ship, Jai Mahtani was standing in the door of his Salmon Landing jewelry shop, Gold Rush. As he watched the first flood of cruise passengers disembark, he was cautiously optimistic about this year’s tourist season.
“It’s a beautiful day in Ketchikan. Hopefully, it’ll bring finances and money into the coffers of the town, too,” he said.
When asked if he was excited about the start of cruise season, Mahtani said, “It’s my livelihood. It’s everybody’s livelihood. Of course I’m excited about it. This is my 20thyear. I’m one of the oldest stores here.”
And what does he like about tourism season?
“People from all over the world, the interaction, the town is lively, people are happier,” Mahtani said.
Judging from the smiles on the dock, people were pretty happy, especially when the morning sun peeked through a break in the clouds. A good omen, perhaps, for the busy summer season.
The Ruby Princess is scheduled to dock in Ketchikan 20 times this summer. Cruise season will start slowly over the next week, with just a single ship visiting most days. May 9 is the first multi-ship day for Ketchikan.
Sitka and Juneau will lose a week of fast ferry sailings this month. The Chenega will return to Southeast service May 14th, a week later than scheduled.
The vessel has been undergoing an overhaul, which includes replacing its engines. Spokesman Jeremy Woodrow says the Chenega turned out to have corrosion in its starboard hull. It’s being patched up for the season at the Ketchikan Shipyard, with permanent repairs planned for later this year.
“This temporary fix will be fine and it’ll be safe enough and it will be certified by the Coast Guard to run passenger service. And that way, we can get the vessel out sooner than if we had to do a major repair to this area where there is a little bit of corrosion found.”
The ferry usually sails in Prince William Sound. But it’s scheduled to fill in this month for the Fairweather, its sister ship, which is having an engine replaced.
The Chenega will miss four Juneau-to-Sitka roundtrips May 7th-10th. Its first sailing on that route, May 14th, includes a stop in Angoon. Its first Juneau-to-Petersburg roundtrip is scheduled for May 15th.
Woodrow says reservations staffers are contacting affected passengers.