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Get Alaska statewide news from the stations of the Alaska Public Radio Network (APRN). With a central news room in Anchorage and contributing reporters spread across the state, we capture news in the Voices of Alaska and share it with the world. Tune in to your local APRN station in Alaska, visit us online at APRN.ORG or subscribe to the Alaska News podcast right here. These are individual news stories, most of which appear in Alaska News Nightly (available as a separate podcast).
Updated: 29 min 35 sec ago

Petersburg Considers Changes to Senior Sales Tax Exemption

Wed, 2014-09-24 17:40

If you’re 65 or older, you don’t have to pay Petersburg’s 6 percent sales tax.

Municipal Finance Director Jody Tow says that means local government is losing out on a lot of money.

“We’re estimating, conservatively, $270,000 in lost tax revenue for senior exemptions,” she says.

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Petersburg voters face seven ballot measures in the Oct. 7 municipal election. Four propose changes to the senior citizen sales tax exemption. (Photo illustration, CoastAlaska News)

The borough’s annual sales-tax take is about $3 million. So eliminating the exemption would boost revenues by about 10 percent.

Borough figures show seniors make up a little more than 15 percent of the population. Sue Flint, who chaired the committee examining the exemptions, says it could almost double by 2020.

“And that just leaves young families to bear the burden of running the fire department, the snowplows, the roads [and] the police. So mostly, we just wanted to see if there was a more fair way to do this,” she says.

Not everyone believes the senior population boom will come. Lee Corrao, who also served on sales tax committee, questions the prediction.

And even if it’s right, he says it’s way too early to make such changes.

“So the justification for doing this at this time seems at best premature and possibly ill-advised all together,” he says.

Four ballot measures before Petersburg voters in the Oct. 7 municipal election detail different ways to cut back on the exemption.

The one with the most impact calls for sunsetting, or phasing out, the tax break, starting in about five years. Those eligible would have to apply for and get an exemption card by the end of 2019. After that, no one could apply.

Borough Clerk Kathy O’Rear wants to make sure seniors know if they already have the exemption, they won’t lose it.

“This five-year period would give people time to adjust to it. And ones who are getting close to that age of 65, to still have opportunity to obtain that exemption,” she says.

Two other ballot measures would tighten the rules.

One would make seniors just passing through Petersburg ineligible. Another measure requires seniors to be in town at least 185 days a year.

Flint says that’s the same as for Alaska’s Permanent Fund dividend.

“We really want it for our year-round residents, who support the community in many other ways,” she says.

Yet another ballot measure would continue the tax exemption, but limit how it could be used.

“We have estimated that senior citizen exemptions are 50 percent comprised of all fuel and groceries,” she says.

“Not all needs are groceries and oil,” says tax committee member Corrao.

“I believe the end result would be to drive people more to the internet, where the city can’t tax them. … Six percent is a big deal right now,” he says.

Petersburg is not alone in its search for new revenues.

Alaska Municipal League Executive Director Kathie Wasserman says communities want local control of the state-mandated property tax break for seniors.

“Residents, as they should, want services for the taxes that they do pay. So, with payroll going up and fuel going up, many municipalities feel they don’t have many options,” she says.

Wasserman says senior sales tax exemptions are not getting much scrutiny elsewhere, though Juneau is considering that option.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska Power & Telephone Buys Gustavus Electric Co.

Wed, 2014-09-24 17:39

Alaska Power and Telephone has purchased the Gustavus Electric Co. The 32-year-old homespun utility is the life’s work of Gustavus local Dick Levitt and his wife Linda.

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The hydroelectric plant at Falls Creek. (Photo courtesy of Alaska Energy Authority.)

AP&T President Bob Grimm says he has no plans to significantly change how the utility is operated. The one change Grimm mentions is that soon customers will be able to pay their bill with a credit card.

Regarding the sale of the utility, Grimm says he was first approached by Dick Levitt over a year ago.

“Eventually we came to an agreement and it included the hydro. Then we had to get all the regulatory approvals,” Grimm said. “We just finalized things up in July.”

Dick and his wife Linda made the choice to sell the utility because of Dick’s health. He suffered a stroke two years ago and hasn’t been able to manage the utility the same since.

“When the sale closed it was definitely mixed emotions for me,” Levitt said. “It was like giving up a child that I had raised. On the one hand I knew I had to give it up and get out of the business because of my health. And on the other hand I was still giving up something that was my life’s work. In that respect it was hard to see it go.”

Levitt is a trained electrical engineer, so when he saw an opportunity in Gustavus to start an electric utility, he went for it. The utility was created in 1982 and was diesel-based at first, but Levitt says he knew from the beginning that wasn’t going to be sustainable. Leavitt needed access to Falls Creek to bring hydropower to Gustavus and to do that he needed and act of Congress.

“Of course it was in Glacier Bay National Park which made it difficult,” Levitt said. “Probably in the mid-80s I started approaching the congressional delegation about legislation that would allow that to happen and it took close to 20 years to get that to come together. It was a long arduous process but we eventually got it done.”

Congress’s stamp of approval allowed the State of Alaska and the National Park Service to swap land, giving Leavitt access he needed to Falls Creek. Levitt prevailed when the Sierra Club protested the hydroplant during the Federal Energy Regulatory Commision’s approval process. The 800 kW hydroplant was finally completed in 2009.

Levitt says he hired AP&T as consultants on the design of the hydroplant, so he feels confident about their ability to maintain the facility.

The next hurdle for Gustavus Electric is to get the National Park Service in Glacier Bay as a customer. The park service still runs its facilities on diesel, despite efforts by Levitt to get them to switch. Grimm says convincing the park service to step away from fossil fuels is a priority.

Categories: Alaska News

Rethinking The Asphalt Parking Spot

Wed, 2014-09-24 17:37

Imagine a parking spot. Typically a slab of asphalt waiting for the next vehicle to roll on by. Now imagine that spot transformed into a green oasis among the urban jungle for an entire day. That’s what happened recently when the national event, Parking Day, came to Anchorage. The event was hosted by the Anchorage park Foundation, the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation, and Anchorage Downtown Partnership. 

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Add some marshmellows, coffee and some tunes and you get an asphalt makeover. Photo by Ashley Snyder/APRN.

Instead of cars, parking spaces all over town were occupied by tents, turf, volunteers, and booths offering a variety of activities for people passing by to participate in. Smoke rolled out from the fire pits and barbeques, music floated down the sidewalks, and the green of plants and trees strategically placed in each location added some color to the otherwise gray backdrop.

Beth Norland, executive director of the Anchorage Park Foundation, led the effort to bring the project to Anchorage.

“I don’t know when parking day was originated, but we have someone who used to live in New York City and has seen it really done up and wanted to see if we could be the most northern site in the country for parking day, and I think we are. We’ve been thinking about it and dreaming about it for a few years and this year someone decided to make it happen.”

Companies from around Anchorage set up and sponsored the parking lots. SPAWN Ideas and Snow Goose Cafe teamed up to provide hotdogs and live music. Intrinsic Landscapes built a 20 foot long wooden structure with stairs and benches for people to relax and enjoy. Some, like Anna Brawley, an associate with Agnew Beck Consulting, took a warm camp-style approach on the damp and slightly chilly day.

“You guys want a s’more? Yeah, we thought we’d have a real homey camping set up. We have a fire pit and a tent if it starts raining again and just kind of inviting people in from the street.”

Many people walking by couldn’t help but stop and see what was going on. As the rain lightened up and lunch time rolled around more people ventured outside to the booths. Groups stopped by to grab a snack and others huddled under the tents close to the fire pits to warm up. Bree Kessler, who visited all of the booths downtown, enjoyed the change in scenery.

“I thought it was a really great way for people to think about how might we use parking spaces in a different way.”

While the parking spots are now back to serving their original purpose, the idea that a dull space can be temporarily transformed into something exciting, could stick around for a while. In Anchorage, I’m Ashley Snyder.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: September 24, 2014

Wed, 2014-09-24 17:34

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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Forrest Dunbar: The Millennial Who Aims to Unseat Don Young

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

Alaska Congressman Don Young is running for re-election. He is 81 and his Democratic challenger is a Yale-educated attorney, an adult of the Millennial-generation who is young enough to be the Congressman’s grandchild.

Studies Predict Peril for Alaska’s Feathered Migrants

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

America’s birds are in trouble, according to two reports out earlier this month from the National Audubon Society and the Department of Interior. Both documents suggest climate change could have dire effects for many of the birds that migrate to Alaska each year.

Pilot Program Helps Bethel Farm Ship Produce to Cordova Schools

Daysha Eaton, KYUK – Bethel

Meyers Farm in Bethel recently shipped about 500 pounds of vegetables to the Cordova School District. The order was made possible through a program that reimburses Alaska school districts that buy food grown in state.

Petersburg Considers Changes to Senior Sales Tax Exemption

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Senior citizens in the Southeast Alaska city of Petersburg may see significant changes to their local sales-tax exemption. Four measures on the Oct. 7th local ballot would reduce the age-based tax break.

Alaska Power & Telephone Buys Gustavus Electric Co.

Jennifer Canfield, KTOO – Juneau

Alaska Power and Telephone has purchased the Gustavus Electric Company. The 32-year-old homespun utility is the life’s work of Gustavus local Dick Levitt and his wife Linda.

Downtown Stores Called Upon to Keep Juneau Attractive Year-Round

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

The last cruise ship to visit the capital city pulls out of Juneau on Thursday night. As stores in the tourist district pack up and shut down for the fall and winter season, the Juneau Economic Development Council wants to make sure downtown remains an inviting place to be.

Rethinking The Asphalt Parking Spot

Ashley Snyder, APRN – Anchorage

Imagine a parking spot. Typically a slab of asphalt waiting for the next vehicle to roll on by. Now imagine that spot transformed into a green oasis among the urban jungle for an entire day. That’s what happened recently when the national event, Parking Day, came to Anchorage.

Categories: Alaska News

Downtown Stores Called Upon to Keep Juneau Attractive

Wed, 2014-09-24 15:49

The last cruise ship to visit the capital city pulls out of Juneau at 9 p.m. Thursday.

As stores in the tourist district pack up and shut down for the fall and winter season, the Juneau Economic Development Council wants to make sure downtown remains an inviting place to be.

As the cruise ship season ends, tourist shops are asked to keep their window displays attractive throughout the winter. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

 If you walked by the clothing store Alpaca International on Admiral Way last winter, what you would have seen in the store windows was black curtains “and a sign that said, ‘Thank you, Juneau,’” says owner Zia Boccacio.

When the business reduces its hours this fall and eventually closes this winter, she says the main window display will remain looking “nice, bright and lively.”

“We’re going to leave, like, an alpaca image in the window surrounded with beautiful wraps and capes and we’re going to leave the lights on,” Boccaccio says.

Throughout the winter, Boccaccio says an employee will be in charge of checking on the window display every few weeks.

Her change of off-season plans is a result of a Juneau Economic Development Council initiative, Winter Windows. Executive Director Brian Holst says it’s an effort to address how Juneau’s downtown looks, “especially in the wintertime when many of our stores in the far end of town are closed.”

Roughly 40 retail stores that thrive during the summer tourist season shut down after the cruise ships leave at the end of September. Many of these businesses are located in Juneau’s Downtown Historic District and are required by city code to “provide window displays that offer year-round interest.”

Alpaca International owner Zia Boccaccio says, unlike previous winters, she’ll keep her store window display “nice, bright and lively.” (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

“Some businesses just put up a piece of dark paper to cover their window,” Holst says.

This common practice does not meet the city’s standard.

Holst says it’s also just not attractive.

“What we want to see is a bright window, so there’s some light on the streets and people feel comfortable walking by, and a pleasantly decorated window,” Holst says.

Window suggestions include scenes of Juneau’s natural beauty or historic past. Holst says JEDC can connect seasonal businesses with local artists.

Winter Windows is part of JEDC’s downtown revitalization effort supported by the Alaska Committee, Downtown Business Association, Tourism Best Management Practices, Princess Cruises and the City and Borough of Juneau. Volunteers with these organizations went door to door and talked to business owners and managers about their window displays during the off-season. They did this once in July and then again earlier this week.

“It’s really to encourage them to do something positive for Juneau this winter,” Holst says.

Boccaccio says she’s on board with the idea and thinks it’s the least summer businesses can do.

“It’s a moral obligation as a business owner that we should cooperate and support this initiative,” Boccaccio says.

JEDC plans to visit areas of downtown this winter, take pictures and highlight the best winter windows.

Categories: Alaska News

Forrest Dunbar: The Millennial Who Aims to Unseat Don Young

Wed, 2014-09-24 14:11

Forrest Dunbar is barely out of his 20s. He’s never run for elected office before. And yet he’s running for Congress, against 21-term incumbent Don Young. You might think Dunbar isn’t a serious candidate. Until you meet him. Dunbar is earnest. Focused. He speaks at warp speed. He turned 30 just this month and he’s well prepared for questions about his relative youth.

Democratic challenger Forrest Dunbar is running against 21-term House Rep. Don Young in the November election.

“So Aaron Schock was elected at 26, Paul Ryan was elected at 28,” he says, from memory. “Joe Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate at 29, then he turned 30 before the swearing in — under the Constitution you have to be 30 — and I’m going to be older than all those people.”

Dunbar’s early life is … well, if Hollywood were writing a screenplay about an Alaskan Congressman, they might choose Dunbar’s bio. (Actually, a TV producer wanted to make a reality TV show of his campaign but he rejected the idea.) He spent his pre-school years in the Yukon River town of Eagle, cutting his teeth on caribou while his father worked as a Fish and Game biologist.  After the Exxon Valdez oil spill, the family moved to Cordova, where Dunbar says they had running water for the first time.

Zachariah Kopchak, a former Marine now living in Anchorage, has been Dunbar’s friend since they were in elementary school in Cordova. As a kid, Dunbar was “a fun-loving little nerd,” Kopchak says. “We all were.”

They shared an interest in video games and “Star Wars,” but Kopchak says Dunbar was more athletic.

He was actually willing to go and play basketball and be physical and hang out with all the jocks and stuff. He was really kind of comfortable doing anything and being with any crowd, it seemed,” Kopchak recalls.

Dunbar spent summers working on a commercial fishing boat and was an exchange student in Japan. A high school teacher, Tim Walters, remembers him as determined.

“Forrest was intense. And he was serious,” Walters says.

He says it was obvious, even then, that Dunbar was going places.

“In a teacher’s career, there’s usually a handful of students that really kind of stand out, that ‘Some day,’ you say to yourself, ‘they’re going to be on the cover of Time magazine.’ And Forrest was one of those kids,” Walters says.

Dunbar went on to an East Coast education:  Undergrad at American University in Washington. Harvard for a Master’s in public policy, Yale for law school. He fought wildfires out of Fairbanks for a summer and served in the Peace Corps in Kazakhstan. He was an intern for then-Sen. Frank Murkowski in Washington. He worked for Guam’s delegate to Congress. He worked in the Alaska Office of Public Advocacy. Last year, he joined the Alaska National Guard, as an officer and an attorney — a JAG.

But a first-time candidate challenging Don Young? Congressman Young has vanquished far more experienced candidates, some with piles of money, starting a decade before Dunbar was born.  Dunbar, though, alleges Young is past his prime.

“So it’s true that there was a time when he was very powerful and effective. He chaired the Transportation Committee, chaired the Natural Resources Committee. But he was stripped of his ability to do so in 2008. And that power is never coming back. He’s no longer influential for the state,” Dunbar says.

Young had to give up his committee gavels because of Republican term limits for chairmen. Young points out that he still is a chairman – not of a full committee but of the subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs. Young says Dunbar, as a freshman Democrat, wouldn’t be chairman of anything.

Among his priorities, Dunbar lists gay marriage equality, reducing the cost of college and resource development.

“I disagree with the National Democratic Party on a lot of things, but when it comes to some big issues like Medicare, like Social Security, like women’s rights, I’m more aligned with them than I am with the National Republican Party,” he says

Like the current Alaska delegation, Dunbar supports oil development in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and favors a road for King Cove. He also says the Alaska exception to the Violence Against Women Act should be removed to empower tribes and combat abuse.

Ethan Berkowitz, a Democrat who lost to Young in 2008, has known Dunbar since he volunteered on that congressional campaign. He describes Dunbar as highly intelligent with an ability to distill complicated information to a perfect nugget. But Berkowitz says Young is formidable opponent.

“There will come a time where he’s just not the answer for Alaska’s representative in Washington, D.C.,” Berkowitz says.  ”For someone like Forrest,  the more he can make his case, whether it happens this cycle or the next election cycle or the one after that, I think it’s an important stage for Forrest to be on.”

Rep. Young has raised more than $600,000. When the current reporting period started in August, Dunbar hadn’t yet reached $100,000. He says he won’t have enough for TV spots but is making the most of online ads and social media.

Categories: Alaska News

Five Arrested in Connection With Medication Theft from Shishmaref Clinic

Wed, 2014-09-24 08:13

Shishmaref. (Photo: KNOM file)

Five people, including two adults, have been arrested in connection to a break-in at the Shishmaref clinic and the theft of more than 100 painkillers—a theft Alaska State Troopers say was accomplished using tools the group stole earlier from the community school.

The theft was discovered by the Shishmaref Village Public Safety Officer just before 9 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 12.

Court documents allege 18-year-old man Ned Ahgupuk and three 15 year-old boys used a crowbar to pry open a door to the medication room, and then used the crowbar to pry open a locker containing the painkilling medication. Community health aides reported 101 tablets of Tylenol with Codeine, as well as five syringes of morphine, missing from the locker.

Investigators say the group of four first slipped the lock to the clinic with a butter knife, but found the door quickly closed behind them. In a sworn affidavit, Alaska State Trooper Tim Smith writes Ahgupuk and the three minors then went to the Shishmaref school “to find a tool to break in.”

Trooper Smith writes that Ahgupuk and two of the minors climbed through a window into the school as one of the minors and another man, 18-year-old Ryan Nayokpuk, waited outside. The three returned with a crowbar and several propane torches.

Court records say the original group of four returned to the clinic with the crowbar, as “[Nayokpuk] remained outside the school,” and smashed the window with the crowbar before breaking into the medication locker.

With the medication in tow, Trooper Smith writes the group “reunited with [Nayokpuk] … and ‘did lines’ of crushed … pills.” Smith writes the Nayokpuk took the crowbar because, “according to the other boys … he wanted to throw it away.”

Troopers responded that day and arrested the three minors, as well as Ahgupuk and Nayokpuk. Smith’s affidavit states “[Nayokpuk] and the [three] juveniles admitted to the burglaries of both the school and the clinic” and that “[Ahgupuk] returned a bag of Tylenol … pills and a single morphine syringe” which he said came from the clinic. Nayokpuk admitted to “consuming” the pills.

Troopers say two morphine syringes and “a majority” of the pills remain unaccounted for. Smith writes in his affidavit that “investigation is continuing into the whereabouts of the remaining drugs” and that the community “is concerned for their children due to the dangerous nature of Opioids.”

The minors were taken to the Nome Youth Facility and are being held on charges related to burglary, theft, and misuse of a controlled substance.

Ahgupuk faces six charges—including four felony charges of burglary, misuse of a controlled substance, and criminal mischief for property damage. He also faces two misdemeanor theft charges.

Nayokpuk faces fewer charges—three in all—including felony charges of burglary and distribution of a controlled substance. He also faces one misdemeanor theft charge.

Both men were taken to Nome’s Anvil Mountain Correctional Center and arraigned in mid-September. They’re now awaiting preliminary hearings at the end of the month.

Categories: Alaska News

Assembly delays decision on Chugach Access Plan

Wed, 2014-09-24 00:36

After more than 40 people testified before the Anchorage Assembly, the body voted to postpone making a decision on the Chugach State Park Access Plan.

Most of the people spoke overwhelmingly in support of the Access Plan saying that the park enhances the quality of life in the city. Resident Gary Snyder said it’s a public resource that people have the right to easily access, just like other parts of the city.

“I own a home in midtown. It’s also near some public resources, such as libraries, sports arenas, the university, as well as hospitals and publicly zoned business areas,” he told the Assembly. “While I don’t appreciate traffic, parking noise, and garbage from visitors to my part of town from outlying areas, I understand that people have a right to access these areas that I choose to live near.”

Most of the dissenting voices came from property owners and community councils that could be required to provide access in the future. They said the access points could reduce property values and increase crime in the area, like vandalism and fires.

Chugach superintendent Tom Harrison said the plan gives recommendations for access points but that not all of them would necessarily be developed.

“All that’s really being asked is that the public lands be afforded the same access that would be afforded to any other private developer that would be adjacent. And that’s kind of the guts of it.”

Assembly member Bill Starr asked to delay the decision because he wants more time to research. He plans to request to remove some of the suggested access points. Assembly members agreed that they needed more time to review the 40 possible amendments to the ordinance.

The plan has already been adopted by the state. If the municipality incorporates it into their comprehensive plan, then the suggested access points would have to be considered when developing new subdivisions or diving up certain plots.

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage Assembly says no to legalizing marijuana

Wed, 2014-09-24 00:31

The state’s largest city is publicly speaking out against Ballot Measure 2, which aims to legalize marijuana. But the Anchorage Assembly’s vote was not unanimous.

The Assembly resolution argues that part of the problem of locally legalizing marijuana is that banks can’t accept money from pot-related businesses. It’s considered money laundering because selling the drug is illegal according to federal law. The resolution cites an increase in robberies in Colorado because so many businesses now have cash sitting around.

But the opposition was not supported unanimously. Chairman Patrick Flynn said the municipality should not weigh in on state issues.

“I don’t think, frankly, the voters care what we think,” he told the rest of the Assembly. “And to the extent that we take actions like this, I think it’s more of an irritant than an attractant for the position we take.”

Most others voted in favor saying they were urged by their constituents and the ballot measure endangers public safety.

Categories: Alaska News

Murkowski Backs Sullivan in TV Spot

Tue, 2014-09-23 17:45

U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan has a new campaign ad featuring the person he hopes to call a colleague: Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

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On the one hand, the 30-second spot is just a classic endorsement, with Murkowski indoors, looking straight at the camera:

“I need a partner in the senate who will work to advance Alaska’s interest, not the Obama agenda,” she says.

Anchorage pollster Marc Hellenthal says endorsements usually don’t move voters, but this one is different because s Lisa Murkowski is the most popular person in Alaska.

“She has the highest positive and the lowest negative of any public figure or politician in the state,” Hellenthal says.

Hellenthal also thinks the ad will also be effective because Sullivan was a relative unknown in Alaska as recently as a year ago*.*

“So people rather than just get their information from Sullivan’s TV ads, Sullivan has now been sponsored by someone they have a long history with – Lisa Murkowski.”

Hellenthal says it could tip the scales, because even among Democrats, Murkowski ranks just a hair below Begich in popularity.

“We’ve got basically a dead heat between Sullivan and Begich, so one or two percent could be the difference in an election.”

The Begich campaign responded that, despite what Murkowski says, she and Begich voted the same way 80 percent of the time in the first half of the year, and 60 percent of the time during the years they’ve served together. Begich campaign spokesman Max Croes sent a long list of issues where Begich and Murkowski are aligned. Both senators, for instance, support legal access to abortion, raising the federal minimum wage and legalizing gay marriage. Sullivan has opposed all three.

But whatever their differences, Murkowski is standing with Sullivan …

“Alaska needs Dan Sullivan,” she says.

… While she told Begich earlier this summer to stop using her picture in his campaign ads.

Categories: Alaska News

Tribes Advance Self-Governance Initiative With Tax Bill

Tue, 2014-09-23 17:44

A bill that will exempt tribes from taxation on social welfare programs has made its way through Congress and is awaiting the president’s signature. The bill was introduced in response to the Internal Revenue Service’s increased auditing of tribes over the last few years and is part of a national initiative to give tribes the same tax status as local and state governments.

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Capitol Hill, Washington, D.C. (Creative Commons photo by KP Tripathi)

John Dossett, an attorney for the National Congress of American Indians, says this whole thing started in 2005 when the IRS Tax Exempt and Government Entities Division went to the National Indian Gaming Commission and got a list of its tribal members.

“They started at the top with the most wealthy tribes and they started auditing them around 2005,” Dossett says. “And then they started working their way down the list.”

While some of the larger tribes complained about the audits, it wasn’t until smaller, less wealthy tribes started getting audited that NCAI started looking into the issue. Dossett notes one of the most egregious examples was when the IRS went after the Oglala Sioux tribe. The IRS expected families to claim charity – such as $200 vouchers to buy their children new school clothes – as income on their individual tax forms.

“It’s ridiculous. It’s absolutely off-the-Richter-scale ridiculous,” Dossett says. “And then when they started doing that kind of stuff, that’s when it just lit the tribes up. “
To be clear, the IRS was targeting tribal general funds. So if a tribe was operating a social welfare program with its own money, the IRS wanted those benefits to be taxed. If a tribe was operating a program funded by the federal government, that was OK.

In Alaska, Native interests in oil, timber or other business investments are most often held by the corporations. In turn, most tribes have little if any general funds and instead operate most of their services with federal funding.

Still, Dossett brought a warning to last year’s Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks. He told delegates that the same IRS division that had been under fire for targeting Tea Party and conservative groups was also targeting tribes. While the IRS does not disclose who it audits, there haven’t been any publicized reports of Alaska tribes subjected to the targeted audits.

Despite that, tribes like the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes have become involved in the NCAI’s Inter-Tribal Organization Tax Initiative, which seeks to put Alaska Native and American Indian tribes on a level playing field with local and state governments.

“We need to, one, be on par with state and local government,” says Will Micklin, a vice president with Tlingit and Haida. “And, two, we need access to capital to monetize tax credits that would allow us to operate those economic ventures that would generate those general funds or enterprise funds that we could use for our own purposes to supplement the decreasing federal funding.”

Micklin is also the CEO for the Ewiiaapaayp Band of Kumeyaay Indians in San Diego and the executive director of the California Association of Tribal Governments. He says numerous tribes in California were subjected to the IRS audits.

“It was burdensome. It was unproductive and resulted in hardship on the tribes and the tribal citizens,” Micklin says.
In June the IRS issued formal instructions on how to deal with tribal welfare programs. It essentially gave tribes the benefit of the General Welfare Doctrine, which allows federal, state and local governments to operate tax-exempt social programs. Despite the change in IRS regulation, the Tribal General Welfare Exclusion Act of 2013 passed both the House and Senate last week with strong bipartisan support and numerous cosponsors, including all of Alaska’s congressional delegation.

Dossett says key elements of the legislation include the temporary suspension of the targeted audits and a mandate for IRS field officers to receive training in federal Indian law, but he hopes that training includes tribal representatives.

“That’s one of the things we’re really advocating for: that it isn’t just a bunch of IRS agents going in a room and talking to themselves, but that the tribes are involved and they bring in key people who know what’s going on and that there’s really more consultation with the IRS so they can better understand what the tribes are doing,” Dossett says.

The bill also establishes a Tribal Advisory Committee within the Treasury that will advise the Secretary on Indian tax policy and authorizes the Secretary to waive any penalties or interest imposed on tribal governments or members. The bill allows tribes to file claims for any taxes or fines imposed on its social programs in the last three years and directs the Secretary to resolve any ambiguities in the act in favor of tribal governments.

Another bill that NCAI advocated for through its initiative- the Tribal Tax and Investment Reform Act of 2013- would have allowed tribes to issue tax-exempt bonds for community infrastructure. The bill is in a House committee and has no companion bill in the Senate. With Congress in recess until November, it’s unlikely to advance.

Categories: Alaska News

Wasilla Clinic Owner Charged With Medicaid Fraud

Tue, 2014-09-23 17:43

The owner of a Wasilla disability clinic has been charged with Medicaid fraud. The Alaska Department of Law filed charges against Laura Sasseen, owner of the Mat Su Activity and Respite Center LLC on Monday, alleging falsification of business records and and misdemeanor medical assistance fraud.

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The center, known by its acronym MARC, was shut down in June of this year amid an investigation.

State Assistant Attorney General Andrew Peterson, with the Medicaid Fraud Control Unit said there are two suits against Saseen. A civil suit regarding the overpayments, and a criminal suit regarding the falsification of records.

A state audit conducted in 2012 showed that MARC documents had been modified by changing hours and types of service. Auditors found that MARC billed Medicaid close to two million dollars in 2009, reaping overpayments that year of 705, 000 dollars. The state wants to recover that amount.

Peterson says Sasseen was the only person to benefit from the overcharges.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Jurors Reach Mixed Verdict in Unalaska Homicide Trial

Tue, 2014-09-23 17:40

Jurors have delivered a verdict on the most serious charges against two men who were accused of murdering a coworker at an Unalaska fish plant.

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On Monday afternoon, the jury found Leonardo Bongolto, Jr. and Denison Soria not guilty of two counts of second-degree murder each, including one count for showing extreme disregard for human life.

The men were accused of beating Jonathan Adams to death outside the Bering Fisheries bunkhouse in 2012.

But they were not cleared of some remaining charges, including assault and manslaughter. On those counts, Judge Patricia Douglass declared a mistrial. That could set the stage for a brand new trial sometime this fall.

In all, the jury deliberated for about 11 hours. Today, they sent the court a series of written notes summarizing their internal arguments. Judge Douglass said those notes were contradictory and confusing.

The jury reached their verdict shortly after 5 p.m. Before dismissing them from service, Judge Douglass thanked the jurors for participating in what she said was an unusually difficult trial.

Categories: Alaska News

Art is Big Business in Southeast

Tue, 2014-09-23 17:38

What are the arts worth to Southeast Alaska? A new economic study says painting, carving, theater, music and other creative pursuits generate at least $60 million a year in business.

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Southeast artists include musicians, actors, carvers, painters and educators. (Chart courtesy Rain Coast Data/Southeast Conference)

“When you’re looking at the saturation of artists in the region, we have nearly three times as many of the general U.S. population,” says Meilani Schijvens, director of Juneau-based Rain Coast Data.

In a report prepared for the Southeast Conference, she estimates 2,340 artists live and work in the region. Many do it part-time, but their hours add up to the equivalent of 2.5 percent of workforce.

“Last year, Southeast Alaska artists earned nearly $30 million, just from the arts components of their job,” she says. “And to put this in context, in terms of workforce earnings, the arts sector is nearly twice the size of the regional timber industry.”

It’s also about the same size as Southeast’s financial sector, based on full-time equivalent jobs.

Schijvens says about one in 10 of those surveyed make their entire living in the arts. About six in 10 earn less. And some don’t make any money at all.

“Thirty percent of artists in the region, while accepting money for their work, are actually losing money. So nearly a third of the artists are actually spending more in terms of investing in their artwork than they get paid for doing their art,” Schijvens says.

The total regional arts revenue adds up to almost $60 million a year. That includes spending by artists, customers, organizations and audience members.

“It stimulates business activities. It generates tourism revenue. It attracts and retains a high-quality workforce here. People come here because of our arts community and arts our region has to offer. They stay here because of that. And it boosts quality of life,” she says.

Schijvens says her research shows that Tlingit, Haida and other Alaska Native artists make more money. Twice as many, just under 20 percent, generate all their income from the arts.

“If you look at the average net profit for independent Native artists, it’s 64 percent higher than the average net profit for all Southeast Alaska independent artists,” Schijvens says.

The figures come from surveys of regional artists and organizations. Schijvens says the numbers, spending and earnings are probably larger, since she didn’t reach everyone who could have responded.

The researcher hopes the data will be useful for groups seeking grants or looking for ways to collaborate.

“As a whole, we’re stronger than the sum of our parts. So I hope the artists and arts organizations in the region will come together to be able to leverage more grant funding, be able to do more marketing, let people know what a treasure we have and to be able to take advantage of the larger network of art and artists that we have,” she says.

The report was first presented to the Southeast Conference, an organization of business, government and other leaders promoting economic development in the region.

Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: September 23, 2014

Tue, 2014-09-23 17:35

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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Murkowski Backs Sullivan in TV Spot

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington, D.C.

U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan has a new campaign ad featuring the person he hopes to call a colleague: Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Tribes Advance Self-Governance Initiative with Tax Bill

Jennifer Canfield, KTOO – Juneau

A bill that will exempt tribes from taxation on social welfare programs has made its way through Congress and is awaiting the president’s signature. The bill was introduced in response to the Internal Revenue Service’s increased auditing of tribes over the last few years and is part of a national initiative to give tribes the same tax status as local and state governments.

Wasilla Disability Clinic Charged With Medicaid Fraud

Ellen Lockyer, KSKA – Anchorage

The owner of a Wasilla disability clinic has been charged with Medicaid fraud.

Arctic Sea Ice Hits Minimum Extent, 6th Lowest on Record

Emily Schwing, KUAC – Fairbanks

The National Snow and Ice Data Center this week announced Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent on September 17. It’s the sixth lowest sea ice extent since scientists began keeping records back in 1979.

Anchorage: A Climate Refuge?

Monica Gokey, KSKA – Anchorage

“Alaskans- stay in Alaska.” That was the first line of this morning’s most-emailed story in the New York Times, which looked at which U.S. cities are likely to be most hospitable in a changing climate.

Jurors Reach Mixed Verdict in Unalaska Homicide Trial

Annie Ropeik, KUCB – Unalaska

Jurors have reached a not-guilty verdict on the most serious charges against two men accused of murdering a coworker at an Unalaska fish plant in 2012.

As Students Turn 18, Some Have Real Questions for Political Candidates

Lisa Phu, KTOO – Juneau

As high school seniors in Juneau turn 18, some are starting to take a real interest in how the capital city is run. Last week, a Thunder Mountain High School class took a field trip to a Juneau municipal candidate forum where they posed questions to the candidates.

Art is Big Business in Southeast

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

What are the arts worth to Southeast Alaska? A new economic study says painting, carving, theater, music and other creative pursuits generate at least $60 million a year in business.

Banned Books Week: ‘Captain Underpants’ Tops List Filled With Literary Classics

Dave Waldron, APRN – Anchorage

Sunday marked the beginning of banned books week, and Loussac Librarian Stacia McGourty says this week is a huge deal for her profession.

 

Categories: Alaska News

Anchorage: A Climate Refuge?

Tue, 2014-09-23 17:05

“Alaskans, stay in Alaska.” That was the first line of Tuesday morning’s most-emailed story in the New York Times, which looked at which U.S. cities are likely to be most hospitable in a changing climate.

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University of Alaska biology professor Doug Causey shares a slide portraying Arctic warming over the past 55 years. Slide courtesy Doug Causey.

Hurricanes, floods, droughts and wildfires not your thing? Go north, climate research says.

It might sound like a no-brainer to some, but that idea got a lot of play in the media after a New York Times article pegged Alaska as one of the best places to live as global climate warms.

Camilo Mora is a geography professor at the University of Hawaii and one of the researchers behind the science referenced in the New York Times.

“You don’t want your climate to change, Anchorage is probably the place you would like to be,” he says.

It’s not that Anchorage climate won’t warm up, Mora says — it will. It’s just not forecasted to change as drastically, and as soon, as a lot of other parts of the world.

Last year Mora was the lead author on a well-publicized study in Nature that identified a climate tipping point for many cities in the year 2047. Anchorage, by contrast, wasn’t forcasted to reach its tipping point until 2071, according to Mora’s research. There’s a high margin of error with these models, he says, but what’s not in doubt is that climate is warming.

“The temperatures that you have been used to the past 150 years are going to be a thing of the past.”

University of Alaska biology professor Doug Causey says there’s more to the story. Temperature is one of the easier metrics of climate change to latch on to. And yes, temperatures are warming, by and large. But he says thermometers don’t illustrate the big picture, especially not in Alaska.

“Just talk about the terrestrial environment. Soil erosion. Talk to the folks in Newtok about what they’re experiencing as they watch their town wash away. Or Shishmaref,” Causey says. “People who are used to hunting and fishing at nearby ponds… they’re drying up. The permafrost has melted and so all the waters are draining out of the ponds. Not everywhere and not all of them, but these are the dramatic changes that we’re seeing.”

Causey says, ‘yes, Alaska is cold,’ but it’s not exactly a ‘get out of jail free card’ for climate change.

“Anyone who’s here in Alaska who’s paying attention to it — we’re seeing the change right now. Rain in the Interior: I mean Fairbanks is wetter than Ketchikan or something like that! Fireweed is starting to bloom in July.”

Back in Hawaii, the researcher behind the New York Times article says he’s never been to Alaska. Mora says his research is model-based. The regions that ranked high for livability in a warming climate, he says, are places that are used to change.

“Well, Alaska, from the biological perspective, in our opinion is going to be resilient,” Mora says. “Alaska, and other places at high latitudes are used to a high climate variability.”

He points to himself as an example. Mora says he’s originally from the tropics, a climate with low variability — meaning it’s pretty much always warm. Moving to a place where the temperature changes wildly from one season to another, like Alaska, would be a big change for him.

So is Alaska really the Florida of the future? Mora says he’s not looking into the move just yet. For now he’s putting his money into another air conditioning unit in Hawaii over a plot of land in the Last Frontier.

 

Categories: Alaska News

As Students Turn 18, Some Have Real Questions For the Candidates

Tue, 2014-09-23 16:36

Absentee voting for the October 7 municipal election begins today at City Hall and Mendenhall Mall. Juneau residents will choose three Assembly and two school board members, and decide on one ballot proposition.

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Last week, Thunder Mountain High School students had a lesson in civic engagement. The American government class took a field trip to the Juneau Votes Forum at UAS where they posed questions to the candidates.

Areawide Assembly candidate Tony Yorba talks with students after the Juneau Votes Forum. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

“What was the reason for building the Auke Bay roundabout?”

“Why did we build another library next to Thunder Mountain?”

“This is a question for the school board candidates: why does high school start so late in the morning and what are the benefits of that versus an earlier start?”

Coming up with questions was a homework assignment. But before the students could do that, they first had to answer this question in class – what is the Juneau Assembly?

“Uhhh. We have no idea. We were like, ‘It’s a bunch of people who do stuff,’” says student Sarah Morris.

Sarah and her classmates were stumped.

“We were kind of like, ‘This is interesting. We don’t even know what they do.’ And I’m 18. I can vote now. What is this?” Sarah says.

Some students turned to their phones, their teacher gave them her definition and then the class had a discussion.

“And then we just came up that they, like, make laws for Juneau.”

Now that Sarah has an idea of what the Assembly is, she does have some concerns.

“The garbage dump is just horrible and I’m like, ‘Why is it that way?’ And I really think that everybody has really positive opinions about it, but it needs to be changed and just how that needs to be done, I still want to know,” Sarah says.

Classmate David Wolfe didn’t get a chance to ask his question.

Maria Gladziszewski answers more student questions. (Photo by Lisa Phu/KTOO)

“I wanted to ask if they see the amount of personnel that they have in the government as all essential. I feel like a lot of expenses go towards hiring people and we don’t need as many people in the government system as we do,” David says.

For the school board, Sarah wonders this about Thunder Mountain High School:

“Why don’t we have a nurse there full time? I think that’s really important. I mean, like, everybody is really concerned about the health of the students but, yet, there’s no nurse there. You go at the beginning of the day and you’re like, ‘Can I get some ibuprofen?’ ‘Oh, the nurse isn’t here.’”

Overall, the students were happy they went to the forum. So was teacher Mara Early.

“I’m just really excited that they got to come and merge what they learn in the classroom with real life politics in the community,” Early says.

Chloe Varner is student body president at Thunder Mountain. She says she’s long been intrigued with politics, but only recently has become interested in what’s happening on the city level.

“I just turned 18 so now I get to vote and I get to put my voice out there. I’m just starting to pay attention to what’s going on. I took notes and I’m getting a better idea of who I’m going to vote for,” Chloe says.

Now, the students can focus on their next assignment during this election season. In pairs, the students are researching a real candidate in the municipal or general election and playing the role of that candidate’s campaign manager. The students will develop a campaign strategy, advertisement material and write a speech.

Categories: Alaska News

Gas To Liquids Project Could Cut Oil Production Costs

Tue, 2014-09-23 14:20

An Alaska company wants to help reduce the cost of producing oil on the North Slope.  Alaska Natural Gas to Liquids, based in Anchorage, is pitching a plan to construct a gas-to-liquids facility that could save the producers between $50 million and $100 million a year.

Richard Peterson, raspy voiced president and CEO of Alaska Natural Gas to Liquids, (ANGTL) is a mechanical engineer who has been in the energy field for the past forty years.Peterson spoke at a recent Mat Su Business Alliance luncheon to pitch a 650 million dollar project, that, he says, will save costs to oil and gas producers.

“Those producers must import about a hundred thousand gallons a day of diesel. Where do you make ultra-low sulphur diesel in Alaska? Tesoro Nikiski. So the diesel that is required to be used on the North Slope, comes out of Tesoro, Nikiski, has to be transported all the way to the North Slope. Nine hundred miles of transport. This adds an enormous amount of cost.”

 ANGTL would like to bring that cost down, by providing the technology for producing clean burning diesel on site at the North Slope.  According to Peterson, the process that enables natural gas to be converted to a liquid fuel has been around since World War 2. His proposed facility would convert natural gas into a low sulphur, clean burning diesel fuel.

 ”We’d like to bring the first commercial plant in the United States to Alaska, “  he said.

 Peterson showed photos of gas to liquids reactors, at least one now in use by Shell in Qatar, which produces 140 thousand barrels of diesel a day. But other types of reactors produce diesel on a smaller scale. He said that the mega- facilities “don’t translate to Alaska right now,” but the smallest unit, could be adapted to Alaska’s needs, if built correctly.

“To make it economic, it has to be built in modular form.”

 He says the modules could be built in state, and shipped to the North Slope,  although the  reactors themselves would be built elsewhere.

“You cannot stick built stuff like this on the North Slope. The cost is just too high.  So you need to go to places where you can build them, then transport them by road, rail or ship, to the site.  The Valley happens to have three of those, so why wouldn’t you start looking at potentially building those small scale modules in a place like the Valley?”

 Peterson says the small project’s cost, which includes a building to house the reactor, at 650 million dollars, …” is a tad too big for financing within the state, so we are going outside the state.” Peterson did not indicate where outside the state he was looking, although he said Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority [AIDEA] is interested in the project.

He says, in saving oil producers some production costs, his company can help oil companies to do more to create opportunities for small businesses and for alternative energy projects.

Categories: Alaska News

Arctic Sea Ice Hits Minimum Extent, 6th Lowest On Record

Tue, 2014-09-23 11:48

The National Snow and Ice Data Center this week announced Arctic sea ice reached its minimum extent on September 17th. It’s the sixth lowest sea ice extent since scientists began keeping records back in 1979.

Ice extent was measured at 1.94 million square miles. According to the NSIDC, this year’s sea ice minimum is below the long term average.
But the measurement is still a preliminary measurement. Changing winds still have the potential to push the ice extent lower.

The NSIDC says it’s still too soon to tell whether the sea ice surrounding Antarctica has reached its maximum winter extent. However, sea ice in Antarctic has been recorded above average in almost all sections of that continent this year.

Scientists expect to announce the Antarctic maximum sea ice extent and official Arctic sea ice minimums minimum some time in October.

Categories: Alaska News

Banned Books Week: ‘Captain Underpants’ Tops List Filled With Literary Classics

Tue, 2014-09-23 08:09

Today we’re celebrating banned books. Yesterday marked the beginning of banned books week, and Loussac Librarian Stacia McGourty says this week is a huge deal for her profession.

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“Banned Books Week is a national holiday for libraries,” McGourty said, laughing.

And that’s because banned books week is all about celebrating the freedom to read what we want. It’s also a way to bring to light the banned books of past and present. McGourty says more books get challenged than banned these days. The challenges, which are the first step of banning, usually come from school districts.

“Because it’s geared towards children,” McGourty said. “And a lot of the challenges come because people believe that material is not appropriate for that age level of that grade level.”

Some of the most banned books in school libraries are classics like To Kill a Mockingbird and Of Mice and Men. But McGourty says the most commonly banned book is one you likely haven’t heard of – unless of course you are a parent of a 10-year-old boy.

“Captain Underpants is probably number one this year,” McGourty said. “It is an elementary-age graphic novel, and it’s basically a super hero cartoon. I haven’t read this book but it’s been super popular. It’s been popular ever since I was in college working at the book store and it’s popular now. We still have kids asking for it.”

Captain Underpants aside, McGourty says these banned and challenged books are usually serious and sometimes absurd censorships.

“In 1987 Anchorage School Districts banned a dictionary for having slanged definitions for certain words,” she said.

McGourty says banning books in a public library is much harder than doing it in a school, but it does happen. She says anyone can try to ban a book.

“Every library has their own process. At ours you would fill out a comment sheet and it would go to the director. You have to be very specific in why you think it needs to be taken off the shelf, you can’t take things out of context and you have to read the entire book,” McGourty said. “It’s a lot harder in a public library than a school library, because we are a library of the people.”

The Censorship Challenge: A Banned Books Pub  Quiz

McGourty says most people at her library bypass the banning process, and take their censorship into their own hands.

“You have plenty of people who check out a book and never return it, because they don’t think anyone else needs to have that book. Or you have people who return it but black out certain things,” McGourty said. “There is a picture book called In the Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendack. There’s a picture of a little boy, and he just happens to be naked in the kitchen. And sometimes people draw a little bathing suit on the boy.”

McGourty says you might be tempted to think that if a little vandalism is the worst that’s happening, and if most these book challenges don’t end in actual bans, why make such a big deal about Banned Books Week?

“I think it’s important because you should be aware that you have the freedom to read and explore the ideas you want. You think about China and how they block certain Google searches,” McGourty said. “So it’s not just books, it’s really about protecting ideas and protecting access to information. Because libraries offer free and equitable access to information and a place for the community to come together and learn.”

Categories: Alaska News

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