GOING WITH THE FLOE

Two harbor seals enjoy a sweet slumber on a rare ice floe at the mouth of the Skagway River.
Photo by Andrew Cremata

Borough election by mail set for June 5

By JEFF BRADY

There will be a state election on same sex benefits April 3 (see notice on p. 6), but Skagway voters will not see anything about approving its new borough on the ballot.
Instead, the borough election will be conducted by mail leading up to June 5.
As of early last week, no court action had taken place to prevent the borough election from proceeding, reported City Clerk Marj Harris at the March 15 City Council meeting. The state Division of Elections was already in the process of preparing a notice for an election on June 5.
Unlike most elections, those involving a change in government, such as the recent Ketchikan Consolidation and Naukati Incorporation elections, were conducted by mail, according to DOE.
Skagway’s petition for dissolving its first class city and forming a borough was approved by a 3-2 vote of the Local Boundary Commission in December, and was upheld Feb. 9 despite two requests for reconsideration. A 30-day period for a court appeal has passed.
The Skagway election notice will be published next month but voter information is already listed on the DOE site at:
ltgov.state.ak.us/elections/skagwayinfo.php
The question on the ballot will read:
1. Shall the Municipality of Skagway be incorporated as a first-class borough? Under AS 29.06.450(c), incorporation of the Municipality of Skagway will result in the concurrent dissolution of the existing City of Skagway. (Approval of this incorporation proposition will authorize the Municipality of Skagway to levy sales and hotel room taxes at the same rate currently levied by the City of Skagway; i.e., a four percent sales tax and an eight percent hotel room tax).
2. If a majority of votes are cast in favor of the incorporation of the Municipality of Skagway, the Municipality of Skagway will be served by a mayor, six borough assembly members, and five school board members, all elected at large.
Harris said anyone who was a registered voter in Skagway as of Feb. 7 will soon receive a voting packet. Included will be a petition for potential candidates to gather 50 signatures, which must be submitted to the state by April 23. Ballots will be mailed to registered voters on May 14, and voting will begin on May 21 and end on June 5.

Another step taken toward pay scale resolution

Effort to amend for ‘variable step’ defeated

By ANDREW CREMATA
The City of Skagway is moving forward with plans to determine the best way to update its pay scales for employees, and efforts are underway to finance a recent resolution adopting a pay scale increase city-wide.
In the meantime, a parliamentary attempt to alter the temporary pay scale increase was shot down.
The intent of the March 1 resolution was to assuage concerns from city employees who felt city council’s decision to award a 12-step pay scale increase to the police department last December created an inequity in the city payroll. In the meantime, the city has hired two companies to conduct a classification study, and a cost of living, wage comparison study, respectively.
The details of the classification study were outlined at the March 15 council meeting. The company conducting the survey, Pearson Consulting of Anchorage, outlined three goals: To develop a point system resulting in internal pay equity for city employees, drafting class specifications and revised position descriptions, and providing guidance for the future so new positions can be integrated into the system. The report to the city will include assessment of current positions, areas needing revision, recommendations, and how to implement the findings.
The cost of living, wage comparison survey will be handled by Southeast Strategies of Juneau. City Manager Alan Sorum said via telephone the study would utilize a comprehensive, standardized cost of living survey from the University of Fairbanks comparing 117 different benchmarks. These include comparisons from different communities on the price of such things as lumber, groceries, home heating oil, sewer, water and “even things like sales tax on food,” said Sorum.
The survey will also conduct a market survey on wage rate comparisons with Haines, Craig, Petersburg, Sitka, Hoonah and Ketchikan, although Sorum said so far Ketchikan has not responded.
The cost of the two studies is approximately $23,000 – $14,952 of which is for the classification study. During the council meeting Sorum said the classification study would require some homework for department heads and employees, and every employee would get a personal interview with Pearson Consulting.
Sorum said, “(City employees) may not get what they want,” but they would get a chance to voice their concerns individually and he was hopeful the majority would be happy with the final decision.
The results of the two studies will be integrated by ranking employees’ point values and plugging that information into the cost of living, wage comparison survey. Sorum said he is still working out the details of this final part of the plan. He is hopeful the final pay scale grid will be ready when the budget is finalized in June, when the current resolution sunsets.
For a moment during the council meeting, it appeared the 12-step resolution might be in jeopardy. City Councilmember Mike Catsi surprised everyone in attendance when he moved to amend the previously passed 12-step city wide pay scale increase resolution in favor of a variable step increase.
The variable step increase option was presented last month to the council by former City Manager Bob Ward at the same time as the 12-step increase. Catsi said it utilized more detailed information from department heads, as well as regional comparisons, in ascertaining an interim solution to perceived pay scale inequity, rather than the broad solution of applying a 12-step increase city wide.
When the various pay scale resolution options were presented to council, Catsi said, Ward’s recommendation was to adopt the variable step increase which was based on comparisons of wages and job responsibilities within the region. At the time, Ward said support for it was “far from unanimous.”
Catsi also cited testimony from Tourism Director Buckwheat Donahue where he said an increase was not necessary for his job, based on his own research as department head. The current resolution imparts a full 12-step increase to Donahue’s position, whereas the variable step increase did not.
Donahue said the actual increase to his current salary in the 12-step increase is 27 percent. “I’m looking at it as a bonus,” said Donahue. “I’m sure it will go down after the surveys are finished.”
Other jobs listed in the variable step increase would have similarly saved the city money when compared to the chosen 12-step resolution.
Catsi said he did not want to hold up the process, but felt adopting the 12-step increase placed an unnecessary burden on taxpayers, and the variable step increase better represented regional averages.
City Clerk Marj Harris responded by saying there was not any advance public announcement of the potential change and public input was needed. “I’m sorry, it’s not on the agenda,” she said.
Catsi said he was following Robert’s Rules of Order, but public testimony and the majority of council agreed with Harris. After a 10-minute recess to evaluate the variable step increase, council voted against the motion 4-2, with Catsi and Dave Hunz voting for the change.
After the meeting, Catsi said it did not hurt anything to bring up the situation, and felt that if he waited until the next council meeting on April 5, it could have been too late for effective action. He said he wanted to make his point, and if the rest of council did not agree, simply move on. Catsi said he has no plans to pursue the matter further.
“We’re moving forward and that’s the end of it for me,” he said.
How to finance the 12-step resolution was also discussed during the meeting. Finance Chairman Dan Henry said his committee, “went over numerous line items in the budget.”
He said there were many different choices within the budget to pay for the resolution, and the finance committee would develop a “cumulative ordinance taking from several different pots.”
Councilmember Mike Korsmo pushed for more details on exactly where the money would be drawn from, saying there was a considerable amount of public speculation on the matter.
Henry said sales tax revenue was conservative for the current budget cycle and some money could come from that source. He also mentioned equipment reserves, savings within individual departments, and stalled sales tax projects like the rifle range as possible sources of revenue, among others.
Henry said he thought all of the details should be resolved by April, and although paying for the resolution would make for a tight budget, it would be no different than last year.
“From a timing standpoint we should be OK,” he said.
Sorum said a an appropriation ordinance could be ready for the April 5 meeting.

BSC turns 21, the howl is back

The Buckwheat Ski Classic is now a full-fledged adult, having hit the age of 21. And its howling founder is back after missing the Skagway-based event last year during his Heartbeat Trail trek across the continent.
Buckwheat Donahue says more than 225 skiers are registered for this year’s races, which start at 9:30 a.m. Saturday on the Log Cabin course.
Although numbers appear down from Southeast skiers, they are up from over the border. Included in this year’s field are about 30 youth skiers from Quebec and several parents in their entourage. They are on a western Canada tour and will be staying at the school.
In Skagway, bib pick-up and late registration will be held at the Eagles from 5 to 7 p.m. tonight, with a SWIX ski wax clinic at the same time. A breakfast at the Presbyterian Rec. Hall gets things started for racers Saturday morning before the dash up the hill to the starting line. For those who don’t have a ride, a SMART shuttle bus with room for 20 will be leaving at 7:45 a.m. from the church.
There are 10K, 25K and 50K ski races, a 5K snowshoe race, and a 5K kids ski race, all starting at Log Cabin, B.C., about 20 miles north of Skagway. After Saturday’s races, the awards banquet will take place at the Eagles, followed by a dance featuring live music by Bluegrass 101 from Juneau. A complete schedule can be downloaded at www.skagwaynews.com. Results will be posted Sunday or Monday.

CITY: Clinic tops C.I.P. list developed for state

A request by Dan and Eileen Henry to have their waterfront lease extended for the Skagway Fish Co. was voted down at the March 1 Skagway City Council meeting after it was revealed by the city assessor that the Fish Co. and Stowaway Cafe had not been assessed “possessory interest” on their properties leased from the city.
In a Feb. 22 letter, city assessor Charles Horan apologized for the confusion over possessory interest, especially as it related to the two properties, and suggested that all government-leased properties be checked on an annual basis. He then set possessory interest rates for both properties.
The council had put off a decision on the Henry lease extension request (Ordinance 07-04) since the beginning of the year, waiting for enough members present to vote on it. Dan Henry, a city councilmember, cannot vote on this issue. He was not in town for the March 1 meeting, but there were four others in attendance: L.C. Cassidy, Mike Catsi, Mike Korsmo, and Tom Cochran.
Bob Ward filled in one more time in the city manager’s chair, as new City Manager Alan Sorum missed his first meeting, having to leave town early before the highway closed for a pre-arranged family trip to Valdez.
The evaluation of the leased property drew some public comments. Mavis Irene Henricksen submitted a letter (see Feb. 23 issue) and Bert Bounds also said its $9.50 per square foot valuation was low compared with commercial leases downtown. He urged the council to let the Fish Co. lease “ride out” and re-evaluate it.
Ward noted that waterfront leases along Congress Way aren’t like downtown commercial leases, because their “highest and best use” is restricted to restaurants or marine activities.
The original Fish Co. lease was signed to run from 1997 until the end of August 2012. It was modified in 1999 for a 23-foot extension to its current 5,400 square feet. City leases are to be re-evaluated every five years, and in 2005 the valuation was set at $51,300. At the city lease rate of eight percent, the Henrys have been paying $4,104 per year in rent, according to the 2005 lease amendment. It is due to be re-evaluated again in 2009.
However, during their lease periods, neither the Fish Co. nor the Stowaway next door had been assessed “possessory interest” for property tax purposes. Ward said it was an oversight by the assessor, which has since set the Fish Co.’ possessory interest value at $41,700 and the Stowaway’s at $45,200. The figures were calculated at 61 percent of a revised fee simple value of $68,310 for the Fish Co. and 65 percent of a new fee simple value of $69,575 for the Stowaway. The Stowaway’s percentage is higher because it has 11 years remaining on its lease, while the Fish Co. has five.
Horan also explained that the oversight was just that : “On a final note, it has been suggested that the lessees may have had some personal influence over the erroneous value calculations,” Horan wrote. “No one on my staff has had any personal contact with any party of interest to these properties that would influence our values. I point out that these errors were made on both parcels that resulted in low values.”
He said they will start listing all the possessory interest properties on a separate spreadsheet each year, which “will be an adequate control to make sure this type of imbalance doesn’t occur again.”
After all the above was noted, members took up the question of whether to extend the Fish Co. lease another 10 years to 2022. Council had granted similar extension requests in recent years for the Stowaway and Jewell Gardens, Ward noted.
But members still had questions about the valuations and the process for extending leases.
Catsi said the valuations seemed “a little low” compared to what he knows is paid by other restaurants in the city. “It may behoove us to look into it... to keep up with the general increase in commercial values.”
Cochran said he had searched the code book for language on extensions and found only a section on renewal, which allows the lessee to apply for renewal within 90 days of the termination date.
“Extensions are not addressed,” he said. “To me, this (request) should wait until renewal time.”
He added that if the council desires, it can change the code, which also does not address possessory interest. Ward said possessory interest is covered in state law.
Cassidy said they should have more time to review the code, and Catsi said it would be best to kill the ordinance or table it indefinitely, and come back later with something.
The four members present voted unanimously to kill the ordinance on first reading.
Henry was still out of town this week and could not be reached for comment. – JB

RUSSIAN GIFT – Mike Catsi sets a gift on the council table from the City of Vyazemsky to Skagway. He said the wooden sculpture represents the bonds of friendship in the small world we live in. JB

CITY: Russians make it as far as Juneau

Winter weather delays and ferry cancellations stalled the delegation from Vyazemsky, Russia and got them only as far as Juneau early this month before they had to head home, reported City Councilmember Mike Catsi, who represented Skagway with Mike Healy in the city exchanges program to Russia earlier this year.
Catsi was able to meet Mayor Victor Shashtum in Juneau. While disappointed in not being able to get the mayor to Skagway, he said they managed to get all their work done, and take the delegation to the state capitol, glacier, and brewery. “They took a liking to Alaska Amber,” he said.
They also attended a Skagway basketball game, and the Russian mayor “was as loud as the rest of the Skagway fans,” Korsmo said.

PHOTO OF THE WEEK

Bob Ward is topped with a green hat by Mayor Tim Bourcy, as wife Karen, (right) and assistant Michelle look on. Bob’s smile isn’t quite as big as that of ‘Embezzlement Bob” in the framed photo. Read about the roast of the retired city manager and a related editorial in features below. Jeff Brady

• FEATURE: Boa, friendly barbs for Bob Ward's finale; Related Editorial: Farewell to the best

• SHS & SKAGWAY ACTIVITIES: Panther teams wind up season, look toward better 2008

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