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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: 53 min 54 sec ago

Glory Hole Homeless Shelter Reopens After Repairs

Thu, 2015-02-05 17:03

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Alaska News

Governor’s New Budget Cuts 300 State Employees

Thu, 2015-02-05 16:57

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Alaska News

SeaLife Center Blind Seal Warms Trainers’ Hearts

Thu, 2015-02-05 15:35

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

Categories: Alaska News

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

Thu, 2015-02-05 14:26

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

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

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

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

Categories: Alaska News

Mat Su Behavioral Health Report Reveals Lack of Services

Thu, 2015-02-05 13:32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Training Nears For First Wave Of Armed Alaska VPSOs

Thu, 2015-02-05 12:17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Alaska News

Before Releasing Budget Details, Walker Warns Of Layoffs

Wed, 2015-02-04 20:48

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Categories: Alaska News

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

Wed, 2015-02-04 17:50
Each year communities across the nation participate in the Point in Time Count during the last 10 days in January. They’re trying to take a snapshot of homelessness by asking how many people slept on the streets or in shelters during one specific night. But the count only shows part of the picture. http://www.alaskapublic.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/04-PIT-Count-tag-out.mp3 At about 6 am on a Wednesday morning on the streets near the Brother Francis Shelter, Monica Stoesser walks up to a group of people shivering on the sidewalk. “We’re doing a survey of people who are utilizing homeless services to collect some information,” she tells them. “So that we can better help serve people who need some assistance.” Rebecca Paulson agrees to participate. “So do you mind if I ask where you slept last night?” Stoesser says. “At sleep off.” Stoesser scratches the pen on the long survey sheet. “Oh! This pen might not be working either.” Stoesser’s pen, like the three others she’s tried, is frozen. Temperatures dropped to about one degree over night. Stoesser is trying to complete the mandatory annual Point in Time Count. She wants to know things like if a person is a veteran and what resources they’ve used recently. The data helps the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) get an idea of how many people are living on the streets. HUD officials say the count has some influence on how much funding different organizations receive, though they use other data as well. They host the count in January because it’s cold, and people who have no other resources, like friends or relatives, are more likely to reach out to different service providers. Paulson has been living on the streets for about four years. She says she used to have a full-time job, and when she became homeless, she had no idea what resources were available to her. “And it was very hard. I’d go two weeks without a shower. Doing what I can to keep clean, you know? Go to the library, use the bathroom, wash my face, clean up what I can.” Paulson says she uses some services, like free showers and soup kitchens, but not others. She knows it’s up to her to follow up with organizations for substance abuse treatment and help searching for a job. She says the experience is humbling. “I’ll be walking down the street and some people won’t look you in the eye at all. You don’t feel human, you know…” After getting some pencils, the survey group heads up a hill to a couple of tents perched on a narrow ledge by a chain link fence. Robert, who didn’t want to give his last name, emerges from a large tent tucked in a far corner, his brown curly hair ruffled from a night of sleep. He’s using his friend’s tent because he’s not allowed at St. Francis Shelter for three days. He had a misunderstanding over chore duties. It’s his third time being homeless in six years. The young man says the common stories told about homelessness are only part of the picture. “And then you got a lot of people saying everyone’s addicts or everyone’s drinking. It’s not true. They think we’re all one big group of monstrosities. But some of us are actually out here trying to get out of this mess.” Robert puffs on a cigar as he says he’s applied for hundreds of jobs online and in person. He was a dishwasher and a janitor for years before his bosses sold the business and he lost his job. But he says it’s hard to get work when you don’t have a home, and people won’t pay attention to your application. “We get discouraged. It’s like, if people would just give us a chance to prove ourselves, it would be different.” He pauses. “It’s proving ourselves, like giving us one day of work, just one so, we can show what we’re capable of.” Later in the day and through out the rest of the week, a group from Covenant House walks around town looking for young people. Josh Louwerse says they’re having trouble getting kids to take the survey this year. “I think kids just don’t like surveys. Which honestly, I think is a good thing because they aren’t willing to just give out their information readily.” Louwerse says the Point In Time Count doesn’t get an accurate picture of youth experiencing homelessness because it doesn’t count people who are couch surfing with friends or even strangers. And he says it’s often hard to identify homeless youth because they don’t want to be identified. “So we have, you know, two thousand kids that are homeless in the school district and they go to school everyday and they want to go to school everyday. And they don’t want their peers to know that they’re homeless. So they work as hard as they can to come to school and have different clothes and try to be ready to go. High school is tough enough, so if you don’t have a good home situation you can kind of get isolated.” Louwerse says Covenant House reached out to 1,800 at risk or homeless youth last year. But he says the solution for ending homelessness can’t just come from the services participating in the count. “Youth get to us because they’ve lost their community. They’ve burned bridges, or they just didn’t have a good one to start with. And so part of making things better will look like us as a community coming around. All of us.” Data from this year’s count will be released later this year. In 2014,organizations counted 1,785 people experiencing homelessness.
Categories: Alaska News

Alaska News Nightly: February 4, 2015

Wed, 2015-02-04 17:36

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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EPA Administrator Insists Water Rule isn’t a Power Grab

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy defended a proposed Clean Water Act rule to a joint committee of Congress today. Republican critics charge it’s an egregious case of federal overreach. The rule is of special concern in Alaska.

UAA Prioritization Report Lays Out Next Steps, Many Questions Remain

Josh Edge, APRN – Anchorage

The University of Alaska Anchorage yesterday [Tuesday] released its report on the findings of the prioritization process it has been undergoing for the last year and a half. It gives recommendations and lays out a basic plan of how the university should move forward, but many questions remain unanswered.

Priceless Yupik Art Stolen From YKHC

Charles Enoch, KYUK – Bethel

The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation is offering a reward for information to help find thirteen pieces of Yup’ik artwork that were stolen from display cases.

Tax On Alcohol to Treat Anchorage’s Worsening Substance Abuse Issues Fails

Zachariah Hughes, KSKA – Anchorage

A controversial plan to put an alcohol tax before Anchorage voters on the April ballot died before the Assembly Tuesday night. The plan is the latest proposed solution to the city’s costly issues managing chronic inebriates.

How Much Debris Litters Alaska’s Beaches?

Steve Heimel, APRN – Anchorage

Thanks to funding from the government of Japan, plans are being made to pick up hundreds of tons of plastic marine debris that has been gathered from Alaska’s beaches.

Interior Tourism Expecting Boost In 2015

Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

More visitors are expected to head to Fairbanks in 2015.  Interior tourism operators got a preview of prospects for the upcoming season during a recent conference in Fairbanks. Most of the expected visitor increase is tied to cruise ship and airline industry changes.

Another Congress, Another Bill to Rename it Mount Denali

Liz Ruskin, APRN – Washington DC

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has filed a bill to forever change the name of Mount McKinley to Denali. As in past years, it will no doubt be blocked by lawmakers from Ohio, the birth state of President William McKinley.

Categories: Alaska News

UAA Prioritization Report Lays Out Next Steps, Many Questions Remain

Wed, 2015-02-04 17:17

The University of Alaska Anchorage on Tuesday released its report on the findings of the prioritization process it has been undergoing for the last year and a half. It gives recommendations and lays out a basic plan of how to move forward, but many questions remain unanswered.

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From, “enhancement in the form of a tenured or tenure-track position is necessary for success” to, “expensive program with limited student demand and few graduates. Recommend expedited review for revision or elimination.” This report lays recommendations, setting the stage for the next step in prioritization. But, there’s one thing you won’t find in the report.

“You won’t see money, funding reductions in here,” Bill Spindle, the vice chancellor of administration at UAA, said. Though some budget cuts will be an end result, he says that’s not the focus of this report. ”We mainly did this exercise to better align all our programs and functions with our overall mission.”

The recommendations are based on extensive research and analysis by two faculty task forces, which looked at every program and function at UAA.

Each item is placed into rank 1 – which means it’s a priority for enhancement – through 5 – which calls for further review, and potentially elimination. But, Spindle says just because something is ranked category 5, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily doomed.

Others are, however.

Sam Gingerich, the interim provost at UAA, says some things – like a number of certificate programs – are potentially on the chopping block because their time has passed.

“While they were very effective a decade ago, there’s no longer as much interest or as much demand by employers, so those will, for the most part, be eliminated,” Gingerich said. ”However, there are a few in there that actually do still have a market that they need to meet.”

The majority of the academic programs were found to fit in with UAA’s mission, or even deserving of more resources. But, a number of programs landed in category 4 – in need of transformation, like the Elementary Education or Human Services programs. Diane Hirshberg – who is a professor of education policy and the president of the faculty senate at UAA – says even though no decisions are final, staff and faculty remain uneasy as state funding continues to drop.

“The administration is being very cautious and trying to let people know that they’re trying to, that they’re gonna put into place a process for budget cutting that is not going to lop off essential limbs, but I think faculty are going to be very, very nervous until we see what this really looks like,” Hirshberg said.

In a letter sent from UAA Chancellor Tom Case, he says revenue projections have fallen by as much as $30 million over the next 3 to 5 years, and the savings from prioritization won’t make up that difference.

Spindle says the university expects to act on the recommendations in the report by the end of this school year.

Categories: Alaska News

Priceless Yupik Art Stolen From YKHC

Wed, 2015-02-04 17:16

The Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corporation is offering a reward for information that helps find thirteen pieces of Yup’ik artwork that were stolen from display cases.

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Newton Chase is YKHC’s Vice President of Support Services. He says the items were taken from the Administrative Building, just across the street from the main hospital.

“We believe sometime this past weekend someone unknown to us gained entry to the building or remained in the building after-hours on Friday and broke into the display cabinets on each of the floors and removed a number of the priceless pieces of heritage,” said Chase.

The thief broke off the ivory loon and left behind the wooden frame. (Photo by Charles Enoch / KYUK)

Officials say there is no surveillance footage of the incident because the cameras on each exit were not recording at the time. A YKHC press release says the locks on display cases were picked. YKHC Risk Management Director Linda Weisweaver says none of the displays were damaged and it appears the burglar tried to hide the theft.

“All the pieces that they removed were really smaller. The biggest one was probably a foot and a half tall tusk, a walrus tusk that had been carved. The majority of them would fit inside someone’s coat or jacket,” said Weisweaver.

Weisweaver says some of the items were taken apart, with only the ivory portion missing. The items taken are estimated to be worth over $11,000.

YKHC is offering a $1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the thief or the safe return of the stolen art. In the meantime, they’ve doubled their security detail.

Officials ask anyone with information to contact the Bethel Police Department.

For images and descriptions of the stolen items click here.

Categories: Alaska News

How Much Debris Litters Alaska’s Beaches?

Wed, 2015-02-04 17:13

Crushed plastic debris on beach at Patton Bay, Montague Island. (Photo courtesy Chris Pallister)

Thanks to funding from the government of Japan, plans are being made to pick up hundreds of tons of plastic marine debris that has been gathered from Alaska beaches.

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Gulf of Alaska Keeper was already in the trash business, picking up old fishing gear, when the 2011 tsunami swept away miles of buildings, docks, vehicles, contents of dumps, tanks, and other materials along the coast of Japan and sent much of it floating across the Pacific. The organization knew where it was most likely to hit. And it did, says Keeper President Chris Pallister.

“A tremendous amount of trash,” Pallister said. “Some of our outer coastline beaches that are hard on the Gulf of Alaska have as much as 30 tons of plastic debris per mile, which is an astounding amount of plastic.”

Talk of Alaska: Plastics in the Ocean

The resources to respond were nowhere near adequate, but concern about the debris was widespread, particularly in villages along the coast, which often organized their own cleanup efforts. A number of organizations got involved, including the cruise ship industry. There was a small helping of federal funds – $50,000 per state, but then the Japanese government sent $5 million to help with the cleanup. Part of that money was released to Alaska through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration last year. Gulf of Alaska Keeper was able to bring more cleanup workers to some of the shores. It wasn’t easy:

“Every year we get our small skiffs and stuff flipped and you know it’s a challenge, and it costs a lot of money,” Pallister said. “We’re exposed out there in the Gulf with our small vessels, and it’s a very, very difficult, dangerous job for all of us.”

The plastic was gathered up, often placed in huge bags, but then it had nowhere to go. It was just left stacked up, waiting for whatever arrangements could be made to remove it.

This year another $900,000 has been released to Alaska from the Japanese donation, and Pallister plans to use it to engage a helicopter to lift the material, and a huge barge to take it to a destination that is still undetermined.

“Now that we have some money, we can do this. It’s not gonna be enough money to do everything we want to do. We hope to get down there and work with the Sitka Sound Science Center and all the folks down in southeast Alaska that are consolidating debris this summer,” Pallister said. “And hopefully this barge will just make a circuit around the northern Gulf, go down to southeast Alaska and we’re talking with our colleagues in British Columbia, they may join us too, and take a big load of trash down to a recycling center in Seattle.”

It’s going to have to be a pretty big barge, and it’s going to take another cleanup mobilization as well.

“We have 1,800 super sacks and a lot of other loose debris,” Pallister said. ”It’s probably about pretty close to 3,000 cubic yards of plastic, and we expect to double that by mid-July of this year.”

And it won’t be the end of the plastic trash. In recent years, Gulf of Alaska Keeper’s cleanups have been coming across a lot more than fishing gear on those exposed beaches. The way Chris Pallister sees it after 12 years of beach cleaning, the tsunami just added to an already existing – and growing – plastic debris problem on Alaska’s coasts.

“That basically doubled our volume, but we’ve always had a really bad problem up here, and it’s mostly western pacific drift that we’re gettin’ up here, it’s not local,” Pallister said.

The material that drifts and blows ashore during storms is just the most visible form. A lot more has broken down into small pieces that can be mistaken for food and ingested by birds and fish. Efforts to assess the impacts of those micro- and nano-plastics in the marine environment are just beginning.

Categories: Alaska News

Interior Tourism Expecting Boost In 2015

Wed, 2015-02-04 17:12

More visitors are expected to head to Fairbanks in 2015. Interior tourism operators got a preview of prospects for the upcoming season during a recent conference in Fairbanks. Most of the expected visitor increase is tied to cruise ship and airline industry changes.

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Categories: Alaska News

Another Congress, Another Bill to Rename it Mount Denali

Wed, 2015-02-04 16:04

Sen. Lisa Murkowski has filed a bill to forever change the name of Mount McKinley to Denali. As in past years, it will no doubt be blocked by lawmakers from Ohio, the birth state of President McKinley. Murkowski says it’s still an important cause.

“It’s something that Alaskans look at in the state and are just reminded that there are decisions that are done for us, outside the state, without consultation,” she said.

Alaska has been clamoring for the name change since the 1970s. Murkowski says Ohio shouldn’t take it personally. And yes, in case you’re wondering, Alaska’s junior senator, Ohio-born Dan Sullivan, does support the bill. In fact, Sullivan signed on as a co-sponsor.

Meanwhile, in the House, Rep. Bob Gibbs of Ohio, has already filed a counter measure, a bill to declare the mountain will remain McKinley. Gibbs’ district includes Canton, home of the William McKinley Presidential Library and Museum.

Categories: Alaska News

EPA Administrator Insists Water Rule isn’t a Power Grab

Wed, 2015-02-04 15:47

The stage was set for Congressman Don Young to light into another Obama appointee. And not just any official: The head of the Environmental Protection Agency, which Young says runs roughshod over Alaska and the Constitution. She was there to discuss a question fundamental to the EPA mission: which waters can the EPA regulate under the Clean Water Act?

Alas, Representative Young is home with the flu. But this was a rare joint hearing, House and Senate. So Sen. Dan Sullivan was there to face Administrator McCarthy. He campaigned on his ability to take on the EPA.

Alaska’s also home to 63% of the water subject to clean water act jurisdiction and 65% of the nation’s wetlands,” Sullivan reminded her. “So as you can imagine, this is a very big deal to the people I represent.”

Sullivan read from a Supreme Court ruling that curtailed EPA’s reach. That case concerned the Clean Air Act, but Sullivan says it’s relevant to the new water rule, too.

“I think that’s exactly what’s happening here. A significant expansion of EPA jurisdiction over the U.S. economy, over certainly my state. And I don’t think the Congress has authorized that authority to the EPA,’ he said. “So I’ll just be a little bit frank: I don’t even think this is a close call.”

McCarthy answered with a version of a response she gave all day.

“I would say that I don’t think the agency is in anyway seeking congressional action or otherwise, to expand the jurisdiction of the Clean Water Act,” she said. “What we’re just trying to do here is to better define that in a way that everybody can be more sure of its implementation and we can save everybody time and resources.”

Throughout the hearing, Republicans said the rule would subject even farmer’s fields and small ditches to the Clean Water Act. McCarthy continued to insist the rule isn’t an expansion of the law but an attempt to expand exemptions to the law.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, threw McCarthy a series of softballs.

“So isolated puddles are not regulated?” she asked. McCarthy said no, as she did to all of Boxer’s questions.  ”Isolated ponds, not connected to other waters, are those going to be regulated under your rule? …. Artificially irrigated areas, will they be regulated under your rule?

Ditto, McCarthy says, for reflecting ponds, summer pools and water-filled depressions at construction sites.

Rick Rogers followed the hearing from Anchorage. He’s the executive director of the Resource Development Council for Alaska, a business association with members from all of the state’s major industries. Rodgers says he remains convinced the rule is a threat to development, in part because it’s vaguely worded.

“From a legal perspective, it is not clear,” Rogers said. “It does not say what she purports it to say, and the rule itself   does not provide the assurances that the administrator is working very hard to provide.”

The final rule isn’t out yet, and Rogers says it may improve with revision. McCarthy says she hopes to have it done this spring.

 

 

 

Categories: Alaska News

Tax On Alcohol to Treat Anchorage’s Worsening Substance Abuse Issues Fails

Wed, 2015-02-04 02:34

A controversial proposal to put an alcohol tax before Anchorage voters on the April ballot died before the Assembly Tuesday night. The plan was the latest proposed solution to the city’s costly issues managing chronic inebriates.

The Assembly ordinance would have put a 5.5% tax on sales in package stores, setting the money aside for housing units, beds in detox centers, and other treatment options. That rate was on the low end of estimates considered by supporters, and left out sales in bars and restaurants.

Assembly Member Ernie Hall sponsored the bill, and believes that with more problemed drinkers relying on emergency services, a local tax is the only way to proactively address growing needs.

“I think for our business community, for our city as a whole,” Hall said during Assembly comments, “this is the major problem facing us now. And I see no other solution.”

The bill aimed to finally find a funding mechanism for services that have been proposed in a number of studies and policy papers looking at how to economically and compassionately treat those in Anchorage dealing with serious substance abuse and homelessness. For years, groups have identified measures to save money and help chronic inebriates transition off the streets. But those policies currently depend on grants and donations which can vary from year to year, hampering longer-term solutions.

“There have been plans and panels that have been put together for the last 34 years to make sure that there’s evidence-based recommendations for the municipality to implement,” explained Carmen Springer, director of the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness. “And the main reason why those have not been put in place is a lack of a dedicated funding stream to support those measures.”

For many Assembly members the bill just was not ready. It was introduced only a few weeks ago, a short window for raising support on what some see as a potential tax hike. Even the 5.5% rate was unspecified until the night of the vote. The measure needed a super-majority before it could go before voters on the ballot. And though several members support the intentions, they would prefer bringing a refined version to citizens.

“While this effort, I think, at some point might be a good tool, if you take it to the voters now and you haven’t worked with the community, you haven’t had the time to work with the community, then it’s going to fail,” said Assembly Member Jennifer Johnston. “You can’t bring it back next year.”

Many members from industry groups representing alcohol retailers and hospitality businesses sat in the audience wearing red to show their opposition to the tax, and applauded when it failed by a vote of 6-to-5. Heidi Heinrich is president of the Fairview Business Association, and does not believe it is fair to ask Anchorage residents to pay more while the state withholds funds meant to address a population coming from all over Alaska.

“We pay $40 million every year [in] alcohol tax, to the state,” Heinrich explained. “It was promised that it was going to be used for treatment, and that way we’re dealing with the state-wide problem instead of just making it just Anchorage’s issue. And that’s not how it has been spent.”

But for some, waiting for action has a higher cost. Linda Kellenbiegel was just a single day away from her 30th year of sobriety, and at the end of the meeting, after nearly everyone else had left, described to Assembly members what inaction means for those in Anchorage struggling hardest to recover.

“Once again we’re gonna have another committee, we’re gonna have another task force, we’re gonna have another thing. And what’s gonna happen is when it comes right down to it you’re gonna get threats from the alcohol industry to stop them from paying anything,” Kellenbiegel said, fighting back tears. “I just don’t know how many more people that I know who come in and get sober but can’t do it without the facilities, who can’t do it without the detox–how long are they going to have to wait? How many more are gonna have to die?”

Assembly members are tentatively planning to refine a version of the measure within an ad-hoc Committee on alcohol and drug abuse.

Categories: Alaska News

UAA Releases Prioritization Report Findings, Recommendations

Tue, 2015-02-03 19:09

The University of Alaska Anchorage on Tuesday released it’s report on the findings of the prioritization process it has been working on for the last year and a half.

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Though the report provides a basic outline of the findings and a brief explanation of what will come next – many questions are still unanswered.

“You won’t see money, funding reductions in here because, first of all, we don’t think that’s the right place,” Bill Spindle, the vice chancellor of administration at UAA, said. ”This part is mainly about alignment and we mainly did this exercise to better align all our programs and functions with our overall mission.”

Alignment is determined largely by the data collection and analysis done by two faculty task forces, which took a deeper look at both the academic and support aspects of the university.

The findings place support functions and academic programs into rank 1 – which means it’s a priority for enhancement – through 5 – which calls for further review, and potentially elimination. But, Spindle says just because something is ranked in category 5, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s doomed, but a closer look is needed to bring the it into alignment.

“Somebody has to be at the bottom. Now, we looked at everybody at the bottom though, and we need to make sure we’re all – and there’s a lot of alignment issues that we need to work on and we’ve identified those, we have it pretty well under control what we’re gonna do,” Spindle said. “And in some cases it’s already been done.”

Though this report focuses more on realignment and reorganization than sweeping cuts, Diane Hirshberg – who is a professor education policy and the president of the faculty senate at UAA – says faculty are still uneasy as state funding declines.

“The administration is being very cautious and trying to let people know that they’re trying to, that they’re gonna put into place a process for budget cutting that is not going to lop off essential limbs, but I think faculty are going to be very, very nervous until we see what this really looks like,” Hirshberg said.

Ultimately, there will cuts, but at this point it’s unclear what exactly those cuts will entail.

In a letter sent from UAA Chancellor Tom Case, he says revenue projections have fallen as much as $30 million over the next 3 to 5 years – and the savings from prioritization won’t make up that difference.

Categories: Alaska News

Parents Voice Frustration Over Termination Of Tanaina, UAA Agreement

Tue, 2015-02-03 17:52

Scott Hamel answers questions from concerned parents and community members about the university’s decision to terminate it’s long-standing agreement with Tanaina. (Photo by Josh Edge – APRN – Anchorage)

Tanaina Child Development Center has been housed on the University of Alaska Anchorage campus for decades, but, last week the group received a letter from the university saying they would need to find a new home. Parents gathered Monday night to ask questions and voice their concerns.

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“It’s already got me scrambling to find something to do,” Matt Rogers is a research scientist at UAA and has a child enrolled in Tanaina. ”The prospect of finding child care right now is..it’s incredibly daunting to say the least. When I went through this process for the first time, it was almost a year-long wait to get my son into school here. And so for any of the places where you hope to send your kid, you’re looking at something comparable.”

Rogers’ thoughts echo those of the 50-plus parents gathered in UAA’s Student Union.

Scott Hamel is an assistant professor at the university and the president of the Tanaina board of directors. He says the long-standing agreement states the center would provide services and preferences to university students, staff and faculty in exchange for the space it now occupies and utilities. But, Hamel says in a memo sent last week, UAA alerted Tanaina that it was terminating the agreement.

“The reasons that they gave were that there was other people on campus that wanted the space and they also said that it’s a liability issue to have the kids on campus,” he said.

Tanaina accommodates about 60 children, between 18 months and 5-years-old.

The center anticipated moving to a new location over the summer temporarily while the Wells Fargo Sports Complex undergoes renovations, but, the university’s decision not to bring them back came as a surprise.

Bill Spindle is the vice chancellor of administration at UAA. He says it’s an unfortunate situation, but it’s a decision the university had to make.

“As much as we know it’ll be tough on the families – and I know, I’m a parent, I know how hard it is to get childcare, I totally sympathize,” Spindle said. “We don’t think this is the right place to do it, not that we don’t want to be associated with child care. We don’t think that space is adequate, we don’t have adequate space at the moment. As I’ve told them, I’m willing to help them look for other space and see what’s out there, but we’re just limited financially.”

It’s unclear what will move into the space currently occupied by Tanaina, but Spindle says some of the student services offered at the University Center could use the space.

Though the current agreement is ending, Spindle says UAA is open to the possibility of a new partnership in the future.

“There are definitely issues here that we want to try to mitigate,” he said. “We will do the best we can in that area, but for the long term looking at the mission of the university, you know, child care center is a good service, it’s an important one, but we don’t think that’s the best place for it and we think now is the time to move it. But we’re willing to try to partner if we can figure out how to do it.”]

Tanaina has been housed on the UAA campus for decades, but it operates as an independent non-profit.

Discussions about the future of the Tanaina, UAA partnership are ongoing. In the meantime, Tanaina is looking into alternate locations.

Categories: Alaska News

Walker Files $50 Million Budget Supplement

Tue, 2015-02-03 17:36

Gov. Bill Walker has filed his supplemental budget, which covers spending for this fiscal year that was not originally appropriated.

The supplemental budget increases state spending by $50 million overall. The budget includes $92 million for Medicaid payments that were owed to doctors, but not paid out due to issues with the state’s billing system. That spending is partially offset by a $52 million cut in one-time education funding.

The supplemental budget also includes language that would help facilitate the purchase of the Fairbanks Natural Gas utility, which Walker announced last week.

Walker’s endorsed budget for the new fiscal year has not yet been released in full. It is due to the Legislature by February 18.

Categories: Alaska News

Homeless Assistance Program Scrambling For Funding

Tue, 2015-02-03 17:19

A program that distributes millions of dollars a year to keep homeless and emergency shelters open across the state is nowhere to be seen in Governor Bill Walker’s budget—leaving dozens of organizations scrambling for the money they’ll need to keep their doors open.

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The basic homeless assistance program—or BHAP—provides anywhere from $5.5-$6 million a year to emergency shelter and transitional housing programs all across Alaska. Last year 40 organizations were funded through the program in 20 communities across the state. The money pays for anything from staffing costs to social work. Every year the grants help more than 13,000 of Alaska’s most vulnerable—an increasing number of whom are children. About one in five of Alaska’s homeless is under the age of 18 – and every nearly one in three of Alaska’s homeless include a parent and a child.

Sue Steinacher is with the Nome Emergency Shelter Team, or NEST—the one and only shelter in the Bering Strait/Norton Sound region. She says the BHAP grant covers two thirds of the shelter’s expenses—essentially making the shelter possible.

“For NEST, it has been HUGE. It is the grant that really got us up and running,” Steinacher said. “It is far and away the largest grant that we receive, and it funds the lion share of the staffing at the shelter, which is essential.”

But the yearly BHAP grants could soon disappear—one of the casualties of the state’s $3.5 billion budget crisis. The grant isn’t in Gov. Walker’s budget. Marc Romick with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation—which administers the funds—says there’s simply no backup if the BHAP program ends.

“There is no money in the Homeless Assistance Program, and if there is no money at the end of the process, the legislative session, then there wont be any money for us to distribute to the grantees,” Romick said.

In cities like Anchorage losing BHAP grants would impact shelters like Brother Francis as well as Clare House, which shelters women and children. Catholic Social Services director Lisa Aquino says at those shelters, the BHAP money goes directly to case management.

“Those case managers work with our clients who are living at the homeless shelters and connect them with services they need, housing opportunities, employment opportunities, with treatment and healthcare opportunities, those case management opportunities are really the ladder out of homelessness,” Aquino said.

But at smaller shelters—like the NEST shelter in Nome—the BHAP grants can be the difference between having an emergency shelter … or not.

“If we have no other funds to supplement the loss of this rant, it would pretty much, it would come very close to shutting down the shelter. It is that significant a grant to our operations.”

For now, Steinacher says NEST can redirect local donations to keep the shelter running. But that comes at the price of ending the shelter’s other programs, like sober housing and other homeless prevention efforts.

Aquino with Catholic Social Service says the way forward is through engaging with lawmakers in Juneau and making the case for funding the state’s shelters and homeless programs. The group of organizations representing BHAP grantees plan to meet with budget officials in Juneau soon—and Romick with the Alaska Housing Finance Corporation says they’ll review their agency’s needs with the house and senate finance committees on Friday.

Until then, shelters large and small—in 20 communities across Alaska—are waiting to see if they’ll have the funds need to keep their doors open for another year.

Categories: Alaska News

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