A caribou crosses the light-snow-covered Klondike Highway near Carcross during the last days of winter.

Photo by Andrew Cremata

Bus barn project rejected after bid far exceeds grant

The Skagway Borough Assembly has rejected a bid to erect a bus barn for the SMART fleet. Only one bid was received for $647,938, nearly double what the borough had available from a five-year-old Federal Transportation Administration grant.
After rejecting the bid by North Pacific Erectors on a 5-0 vote, the assembly on April 3 debated whether to ask FTA for an extension of the grant to come up with more funding for the project. But despite a plea from SMART owner Stuart Brown, the assembly voted against asking for an extension. The grant is due to sunset this summer.
Brown said he was not surprised by the high bid, adding that “five years of wasting time” since the grant’s approval resulted in higher construction costs. He urged the assembly to ask for an extension, saying he had contacted the state’s Congressional delegation for support. He said the municipality could match the $344,000 FTA grant or pursue more federal or state funds.
“The congresssional aides I talked to said it doesn’t look good to give it back,” Brown said.
However, most at the assembly table were ready to give up on the project, or possibly scale it back on another site.
Mayor Tom Cochran said there is still an issue with the public over the latest chosen site for the facility – municipal land behind the police station and dog pound on First Avenue. An informal petition with more than 150 signatures was submitted last month asking the assembly to cancel the project. Later, a more formal request for a referendum on the matter was submitted, but was rejected by the borough attorney on the grounds that the state constitution states that initiatives “shall not be used to... make or repeal appropriations.”
Cochran said an initiative petition could come back in a different form, possibly with language about the location, and the assembly could be faced with finding a new site. Three or four other sites were rejected – the cause of the five-year-delay – before the assembly decided on the First Ave. site a year ago.
“There’s not enough support for the project,” said Colette Hisman.
L.C. Cassidy said the municipality’s contract with SMART specifies that the company provide the bus barn. While crediting Brown with going out and getting the FTA grant, she said the original contract should have been followed.
Dan Henry said he was not opposed to how the project was put together, but never wanted any municipal money going into the facility.
David Hunz said the price for the building is reasonable for the size. He voted along with the others for rejecting the bid, but said the borough should ask for an extension and see if it can build something smaller, and maybe in a different location. Cochran said he was not opposed to that idea.
Borough Manager Alan Sorum said it would be a municipal facility, no matter who has the SMART contract, but he then added that getting additional money in a short timeframe would be difficult. State budgets have already been submitted, and the federal budget is not approved until September, he noted.
“This has never been identified as a priority project....” Sorum said. “It flies in the face of other projects.”
“What if we have nowhere to put it?” Cassidy asked.
“We have beat this horse to death,” Hisman added. After hearing enough, she called for the question.
The subsequent vote to ask for an extension failed 4-1, with Hunz casting the only vote for the motion. Mike Korsmo was absent.

$2.2 million school budget presented
Maximum borough contribution, activity increase proposed

The Skagway School Board has approved an operating budget of $2,201,453, based on a projected enrollment of 102 students for the 2008-2009 school year.
Last year, the district budgeted for just 100 students but ended up with a count of 105.9 and was able to operate on a revised budget of $2,052,713, about $70,000 more than expected.
Even with a large class graduating this May, “we have better student count numbers than I anticipated (for next year),” said Dr. Michael Dickens, school superintendent.
During a work session on March 26, the Skagway School Board made no changes to the budget presented by Dickens and business services manager Kathy Pierce. It was then adopted formally at the regular meeting that followed. The budget has been presented to the municipality, and a joint work session between the borough assembly and the school board has been scheduled for April 14 at 5:30 p.m. in assembly chambers.
The municipality will be looking at an increase in its school operating fund contribution from $1.053 million to $1.228 million, the maximum 2-mill equivalent allowed by the state. In addition, the district again is asking for additional contributions of:
• $170,388 for extra-curricular activities, up from $119,689, due mainly to increased travel costs that are hitting all activities, Dickens noted, and a new academic activity trip to the state Science Fair.
• $41,879 for the food service program, down from $42,726.
• $42,821 for the technology improvement fund, identical to this year’s amount.
Last year, the school district also received $70,000 from the borough’s federal timber receipts fund to re-start the music program after the budget had been passed. For the coming school year, the music program is built back into the operating budget.
Other increases are seen in employee wages and benefits, insurance, fuel and electricity.
Dickens said the increased budget reflects more money from the state that was passed in a forward funding bill by the Legislature and signed by the governor in March. Skagway knew going into the budget process that it would have an increase in state funds from $861,169 to $911,805.
The quick approval of the school funding bill has been lauded by districts statewide.
“By passing the bill in early March, the Legislature avoided the annual conflict between the deadlines of March 16 for teacher retention notices and the usual passage of state budgets in May,” said an Alaska Association of School Boards newsletter.
HB 273 made several changes to the foundation formula statutes based on work by the Joint Education Task Force last year. According to a press release from the governor’s office, the bill phased in increases to the Base Student Allocation, increases for intensive needs funding, and adjustments to the district cost factors.
“This legislation will help achieve a level of predictability for local school districts,” Governor Sarah Palin said, upon signing the bill on March 27. “Our focus now shifts from ‘How much are we going to spend on education?’ to ‘How can we be innovative and work to improve the outcome of our education system?’ We now must concentrate on accountability for every dollar spent.”
Dickens said the legislature also put back a provision to help districts cope with declining enrollments over a three-year period. According to AASB, if the Average Daily Membership decreases by five percent or more from the previous year’s ADM, then the district can add 75 percent of the difference in the first year, 50 percent in the second year, and 25 percent in the third year.
Looking ahead to its meeting with the assembly, Dickens said the municipality has been supportive of the school in the past and expects they will be supportive again. Providing for the school was one of the reasons listed by supporters for approving the sales tax measure last fall, he noted.
From April 1 to Sept. 30, the borough sales tax is now 5 percent, up a percent from past years. It is expected to bring in an additional $850,000 a year, even with the new tax exemption on food purchases at grocery stores and the sales tax in the six winter months dropping to 3 percent.
As for the school’s capital budget needs, the district will request additional money needed to replace the dry pipe system that is at risk for failure. It was not able to get a request into the state list, since those requests were due last September, Dickens said, long before the engineer’s estimate for the project came back in January. The municipality budgeted $100,000 based on preliminary estimates, and the engineer’s estimate was $329,051.
Dickens said the board is still perplexed why the borough assembly did not go ahead and fund the extra money when it passed a budget amendment for other project needs in February. By making the district submit another capital project budget request for FY09, it moved the project from this summer to the summer of 2009.
“If nothing happens, we will be okay,” Dickens said.

Make a run to the border. And wait?

Two important changes for persons entering the United States from Canada will go into effect in the future, one of which has the potential to slow down summertime tour groups originating in Skagway.
The final phase of the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative will go into effect on June 1, 2009. The implementation of the final phase will mean a passport or passport card will be required in most cases for all crossings into the U.S.
In the meantime, as of Jan. 31 of this year, adults without a passport must show a government-issued photo ID and a proof of citizenship such as a birth certificate. As of April 1, the same rules apply for going into Canada.
The changes were reviewed by U.S. and Canadian officials at a sparsely attended public meeting March 26, a series of meetings set up at the request of the Alaska Congressional Delegation to educate the public.
Boyd Worley, Skagway Port Director for U.S. Customs and Border Protection, said there have been questions regarding First Nations persons and the many different tribal cards they possess.
“An enhanced tribal card that contains all necessary information just might be the answer and is being looked at seriously,” Worley said. “Whatever the decision-makers come up with, the effective date will still be June 1, 2009.”
Also, children under 18 can currently present only a government issued birth certificate, but the age limit will drop to 16 when the final changes go into effect next year.
Skagway tour businesses that travel across the border could be facing considerable delays if another change of protocol goes into effect. Currently, tour companies bringing in bus loads of passengers from Canada can present border officers with a manifest, which helps speed along the process.
The U.S. government could require the Skagway border to process the passports of passengers individually, including a swipe through the passport reader in the customs office.
“There is a possibility of slowdowns,” said Worley.
Worley said he has sent a letter to the Anchorage CBP office to address the potential problem, and hopes an exception to the law can be implemented in Skagway in consideration of its unique circumstances.
He was hoping to hear an answer late this week.

The AIDEA ship loader fills up the ‘Sanko Eternal’ April 3-4. JB

BOROUGH - Port planning award

The Skagway Borough Assembly on April 3 accepted the recommendation of the Port Steering Committee to hire the firm CH2M Hill of Anchorage to complete the port planning study.
Four of the eight committee members evaluated proposals from CH2M Hill, PN&D, TNH and Halcrow. CH2MHill scored highest for experience, approach and key personnel. Its cost estimate of $153,141 was slightly above TNH’s $149,285, the firm that scored second. The other two firms were quite a bit higher in cost.
Mayor Tom Cochran and Borough Manager Alan Sorum met with CH2M Hill representatives in Vancouver, BC earlier in the year at a mining conference.
“All (firms) would have done a good job,” Cochran said, but he felt CH2M Hill had the most experience and the best approach regarding the development of a business plan for the port.
“A big part of their proposal is proving the economics of it,” Cochran said.
CH2M Hill will be using KPMG, the firm that completed last year’s Yukon Port Access Study, as part of its team, along with Bill Wong of Sandwell, which oversaw the recent ore terminal improvements for AIDEA. It also has engineers with experience in Southeast.
In a cover letter, project director Dan Sterley also highliged the importance of having an actionable port development and business plan, a “buy-in” from the private sector, engaging the committee, and coming up with an effective government model.
“It will be our charge to listen carefully to your vision for port development and work with you step by step to craft and shape that vision into a reality that will make you proud,” Sterley concluded. “We understand the value of the tour industry to your city and pledge to develop a product that complements an already vibrant segment of your local economy.”
Port Steering Committee members said they should add a month to the plan’s completion timeline this summer since it took them longer than expected to complete the evaluations. Committee Chair Tim Bourcy recommended that the assembly reserve $2 million for port projects in the upcoming budget, starting with the Small Boat Harbor.

SCHOOL - Dr. Dickens renews for one year

Superintendent Michael Dickens will be back in Skagway for the next school year. Following an executive session in the middle of its March 26 meeting, the Skagway School Board voted to grant Dickens a one-year contract extension.
Dickens will continue to make his current salary of $100,000 per year. Next year will be his seventh with the district.
“They wanted a three-year contract but I want to look at next year and see how things are going,” Dickens said.
He said he has some new grants that he is working on and wants to see how they develop for the district.
“I’m very honored that the board wanted me to stay longer,” he said, adding that he had also received encouragement from staff, parents and students.


BP CHECK - Skagway seniors Annabelle Lingle and Howard Mallory get their blood pressure checked at the Health Fair on April 5. See more photos in gallery below. Photo by Jeff Brady

• SCHOOL FEATURE: Josh Cotton carves a future in art

• HEALTH FAIR: Check-up Gallery

• OBITUARY: Ed Hanousek, Sr.

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