SKIMMING ALONG

The SEAPRO skimmer Neka Bay simulates a spill clean-up in the Skagway harbor on April 15. See the Imaginary Spill Feature below.

Photo by Andrew Cremata

Passports due June 1

Juneau is only option right now for new applicants

By JEFF BRADY

That deadline some of you have been dreading for three years is upon us. If you have not applied for a passport by now, you probably won’t have one by the nationwide June 1 deadline for having one to cross into the U.S.
If you don’t have a passport or one of the new passport cards by then, don’t plan on any trips to Whitehorse. That’s the hard reality, and some are sweating it.
Since the end of last June, the Alaska Court System no longer processed passports through the Skagway magistrate’s office. And the U.S. Postal Service, which is in financial straits and currently on a hiring freeze, is making no promises for the future.
Those who have had U.S. passports that are out of date can renew them online, but if you are a first-time passport applicant requiring an in-person interview, the only option right now for Skagway residents is to go to Juneau, where there are two passport office locations: the Mendenhall post office and the federal building downtown.
That irks some residents. Candace Wallace said she has been waiting for the local post office to take on passport servicing for several months, and is getting nowhere when making calls to Anchorage or Seattle. She’s now writing the Alaska Congressional Delegation.
“It will cost me $300 to go to Juneau and do this,” she said, factoring in ferry travel back and forth and an overnight stay. “I know of at least eight other people in the same boat. We are being unfairly penalized.”
Skagway Postmaster Elaine Brummett referred passport questions to USPS customer relations in Anchorage. She said she is currently trying to get her usual two summer temporary jobs approved. “I’m not sure if (the hiring freeze) includes summer help or not,” she said.
Pamela Moody, the marketing director for USPS in Alaska, said she would check into the Skagway summer hiring issue, but offered little prospect of relief for those in the passport bind.
“Right now there are no plans to make Skagway a passport office,” she said.
Even though Skagway is a border town, it does not have the population to justify the cost of training employees and buying the equipment, she said. It has to be run through the State Department.
She said it may be feasible to locate an office in Haines for both communities – they are currently looking at one for Wrangell that would serve it and Petersburg. But she cautioned that USPS has looked at this issue before, and the conclusion was that Juneau could serve northern Southeast.
“I can tell you there will be nothing in place by June 1,” Moody said.
So what happens that day if you pull up to the border station without a passport, passport card or one of the new enhanced drivers licenses with radio chips (only a few states have them)?
Officially, nothing has come down the pike yet about what the consequences will be for non-compliant U.S. citizens, Alaska chief U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer Jerry McGee recently told the Chilkat Valley News and KHNS. But if you are a non-U.S. citizen trying to get into this country, you will be turned back.
If you are a U.S. citizen with proof of identification and citizenship (drivers license and birth certificate), there may be some wiggle room to let you back in the country. McGee said no U.S. citizen will be refused but there could be consequences. People have had an extra year to comply.
At the Canada Customs station at Fraser, they will be following the same procedures as their U.S. counterparts, even though the new passport law applies to just entering the United States.
Fraser supervisor Terry Joss said they will reject people who, they feel, will not be able to get back into the United States.
“It all depends on what our U.S. counterparts do,” he said. “Our main goal is that people be allowed back into the U.S. after they’ve been through here.”

Hillside man’s ‘campground’ out of harmony

Board of Adjustment yanks permit on appeal

By ANDREW CREMATA

There will be no campground on the hill. A permit for a seasonal campground on Skagway’s west hillside was denied by Skagway Borough Assembly, sitting as the Board of Adjustment, by a unanimous vote on April 16.
Assembly members ultimately said the plan was out of harmony with the existing neighborhood. The decision once again raised the question of how to address the continuing shortage of seasonal housing.
The Planning and Zoning Commission on a 3-2 vote initially granted a conditional use permit to hillside property owner Bruce Schindler for the purpose of maintaining three camp spaces for seasonal occupancy.
Testimony during the P&Z meeting was evenly split between those in favor of the campground and those opposed. Two neighbors said they approved of the plan and that Schindler’s property was “clean.”
Other neighbors raised multiple concerns with granting a permit for a campground. Schindler said he had people camping on his property for eight years, and some said the extra people were attracting bears with garbage and had increased the hillside population by 25 percent.
SMART owner Stuart Brown spoke out in favor of the campground and said he would house one of his employees there this summer if a permit was granted. Brown said there were no options for employee housing available in town. Deb Potter, who does not live on the hill, echoed Brown’s sentiments on housing and said many of her friends were without a place to live.
P&Z granted the permit with the stipulation it would expire on Oct. 31, 2009.
But Schindler’s neighbor Spencer Morgan appealed the P&Z decision citing two of the four conditions for approval of a conditional use permit had not been met: protecting public health, safety, and welfare, and assurance the use would be in harmony with area property.
Morgan said a campground was out of harmony with the neighborhood and Schindler was utilizing an unlawful outhouse on his property.
At the April 16 assembly meeting, the appeals board heard testimony from Schindler and Morgan. Schindler said there were a lot of rumors going around and some were blown “way out of proportion.” He said campers would all be able to use the bathroom and kitchen in his house, so waste would not be a problem.
Assemblyman Dan Henry asked Schindler how he received payment during the eight years he was allowing campers on his property. Schindler said he had collected money and also traded for goods and services, and he only had renters for five months out of the year.
Assemblyman Korsmo asked Schindler if he had paid sales tax or applied for a business license. Schindler said he did not have a license but had been paying sales tax. City Clerk Marj Harris said via telephone there was no means by which sales tax could be collected or paid without first obtaining a business license.
Public testimony was not allowed during the hearing, but correspondence to the Board of Adjustment was overwhelmingly against the proposed campground. At least eight letters from neighbors and other citizens expressed concern over issues involving bear attraction, potential decreases in property values, and health hazards created by inadequate waste disposal.
Morgan testified that he and his family were the most affected by the campground as he was the direct neighbor to the north. He said Schindler’s original application for the permit cited his home as being a five-bedroom dwelling when it was in fact a one-bedroom home, and questioned whether the septic was adequate for campground users.
Morgan added a bear had been shot on the property and had been attracted due to carelessness.
Indeed, a brown bear first appeared on Schindler’s property in Nov. 2007. It got into garbage left outside of a yurt and did damage to the structure. On Dec. 1, the bear was shot after it did more damage to the yurt on subsequent days and ransacked a freezer kept underneath Schindler’s workshop. The bear had been a nuisance in other parts of town before being seen on Schindler’s property.
Morgan said a welcome sign for a bear was out of harmony with the neighborhood and presented a threat to children in the area.
He said there had been a lack of municipal oversight in the area as there had been campers there for some time. When he approached municipal agents about the problems, he was told unless Schindler filed for a permit there was nothing that could be done, he added.
Morgan said the board faced a “fork in the road” and, “I would urge you to make a decision based on the future.”
Schindler responded by saying the bear problem was a lack of oversight on his part, and that currently all garbage was kept inside his cabin. He said that property values would not be compromised as yurts were beautiful structures, and in his opinion, as good as any cabin.
He said he would most likely remove the outhouse from his property.
“We are at a crossroads here,” he said, adding that housing was needed and the decision would offer a solution.
“It’s a creative solution to the housing issue,” said Schindler.
Members were in agreement that most neighboring residents opposed the idea of a campground.
Mayor Tom Cochran said, “The neighbors are opposing it. That’s a pretty strong statement right there.”
Assemblywoman L.C Cassidy said there had been a lack of oversight, and that “things have been going on up there for some time.”
“There were a lot of hoops that were missed,” she said.
Assemblyman Dave Hunz said, “He’s trying to do the right thing, he’s just in the wrong area.”
The board voted unanimously against upholding the P&Z ruling, effectively denying the permit. The major reason cited was that Schindler’s campground was out of harmony with the neighborhood.
Borough Manager Tom Smith said later he would talk with municipal staff to assess whether the borough will seek collection of back sales taxes from Schindler.

Dr. Dickens to take one-year leave of absence

By JEFF BRADY

Skagway School Superintendent Michael Dickens will take a one-year leave of absence “to take care of health issues,” and the district has started the search for an interim superintendent.
The announcement was made at this week’s school budget work session with the borough assembly, and will come up for formal approval at next week’s school board meeting.
Dr. Dickens confirmed his decision when asked by Assemblyman Mike Korsmo to clear up the rumors.
“Regardless, we hope you will stay with us,” Korsmo said. “We really appreciate the work you do. Thank you.”
Dickens said he will be taking a leave of absence after working through the end of his current contract on June 30. He then will leave for Arizona some time in July. After a fall in Skagway in late January, Dickens had to be hospitalized. There were additional complications from diabetes, and he was moved to Arizona, where he and his wife have a home. He recuperated there for two months and returned to the district early this month. He is now on an insulin pump which he wears like a cell phone.
After Tuesday’s meeting, School Board President Darren Belisle said Dickens actually submitted a letter of resignation during an executive session on the superintendent’s evaluation on April 7, but they were able to reach a compromise to keep him on.
“He flat out resigned, and we said ‘let’s try a leave of absence,’ ” Belisle said. “He liked that idea, which is good, because he does wonders at our school.”
Dickens said there are already 15 applicants for the interim position. – JB


FUN BUNCH – Early Childhood Educator of the Year Courtney Pfannenstein, center, is surrounded by her grade 1-2 students. JB

‘Ms. Fun’ top SE early childhood educator

Skagway elementary teacher Courtney “Ms. Fun” Pfannenstein was notified Monday that she was being recognized as the Early Childhood Educator of the Year for 2009 in Southeast Alaska.
The award is named annually by the Association for the Education of Young Children, SE Alaska at its yearly conference in Juneau. Nominations are submitted from more than 160 colleagues in the region. Pfannenstein was nominated by fellow elementary teacher Denise Caposey, who delivered the letter and made the announcement in front of their students.
“We recognize you for your exemplary work on behalf of young children and families in Skagway,” wrote Joy Lyon, executive director of AEYC-SEA. “As a first and second grade teacher you serve as a mentor for other educators, and incorporate innovative teaching strategies, such as weekly yoga classes.
“We appreciate and recognize your high level of community involvement, supporting early learning as a board member of the Skagway Child Care Council, and assisting the child care center with training, fundraising, and general operations. You have also been instrumental in the Summer Camp for Skagway kids.”
Pfannenstein said she felt great about just being nominated, and was surprised when Caposey, who works with her second grade readers, came into her classroom with the letter. A plaque was due to arrive this week as well.
When asked what she likes most about teaching, Pfannenstein said, “Seeing the light bulb go on for the kids. Each day is a new adventure, so I get to learn also. And building communication between kids and families.”
Her “Ms. Fun” nickname was coined by fellow teacher Mary McCaffrey. Pfannenstein, a Minnesota native, first came to Skagway in the summer of 1997 to work with McCaffrey at the child care council’s Little Dippers Day Care. She has been a teacher in the Skagway School District for the past five years.
“Because my name was so long and hard for kids to pronounce, Ms. McCaffrey coined it and it stuck. It is pronounced Fun-enstein, so Ms. Fun works.” she said. “And I love that. It’s a great name for a primary teacher. I’ll keep it.” – JB

EARLY FIRST SHIP – British, Dutch and German visitors stream off the Balmoral, the first ship of 2009, on Sunday, April 19, the earliest first ship day in more than a decade. More ships start arriving in early May. JB

Officials: Discounting, high costs hamper cruise growth for Alaska

By JEFF BRADY
During a presentation to a friendly audience of tour operators and business owners on April 14, representatives of the Alaska Cruise Association presented numbers and recommended a hard look at the 5 percent cruise ship tax and its effect on the state.
Don Haberger of Royal Caribbean and Rod Pfleiger of ACA said the nine members of the organization would be bringing 28 ships to the Alaska market this year, but said they have discounted heavily in an effort to fill the ships.
“I have never seen, in my entire tenure, our company offering a two-for-one sale in April before the season starts,” Haberger said.
The economic slump is affecting him personally, he noted, as his Juneau-based community and government relations job is being eliminated.
In regards to return on investment, the lines are asking communities “if the 5 percent tax was the right thing to do,” he added.
The tax in its first full year brought in $117 million for the state, of which $70 million was appropriated after vetoes. There’s still $45 million in state coffers.
He then showed that there has been no growth in numbers to Alaska in that time, and Alaska’s worldwide market share of the cruise ship pie has fallen from a high of 10 percent in 1995 to 6.8 percent in 2008. In 2010, with two ships pulling out of Alaska, and changes in deployments, the share will be down to 5.8 percent. RCI’s Serenade of the Seas will be heading to Europe next year, he said.
“Alaskans, I believe, should be concerned about how we are attracting customers to our area,” Haberger commented, adding that the cost of doing business in Juneau alone increased about $60,000 per ship, per visit with the tax and other costs associated with the initiative voters passed in 2006.
Local residents said the lines need to be reaching out to the general public about their economic concerns. Pfleiger admitted that the PR effort has been difficult.
“There’s no one-liner to explain what Don’s talking about,” he said.
The lines were pleased that HB 134, with its five-year extension for stricter wastewater treatement measures, was moving through the Legislature (it passed before adjournment), and thanked communities, including Skagway, for their support. Haberger said they were 98.7 percent in compliance last year, but needed more time to address the science of getting to 100 percent with the Department of Environmental Conservation.
He said ships are “going green” worldwide, and invited residents on an environmental tour of a ship this summer. ACA has already shared some of its own technology with communities.
One example is the “bulb eater” used on ships that grind flourescent bulbs into dust and transfer the noxious gases into a storage bladder. ACA’s John Binkley was so impressed with them that he talked the lines into donating 14 to communities they serve, to keep bulbs out of landfills.
The Skagway bulb eater has been in use at the incinerator for a couple months, said Tourism Director Buckwheat Donahue. “Public Works loves it.”


New Borough Manager Tom Smith, Public Works’ Rod Jensen and RCI’s Don Haberger try out the new “bulb eater.” JB

BOROUGH

New manager on job, many projects ahead

At the start of the April 16 meeting, Mayor Tom Cochran welcomed new Borough Manager Tom Smith and thanked the municipal staff for all its work during the interim between managers.
Smith said that in his short time here, he has found Skagway to be a “dynamic community.” He thanked the staff and community members “who helped me transition quickly, especially on the housing side.”
Former manager Alan Sorum is still under contract to work on special projects, but assembly members said they should start the process of phasing him out of that work once the budget is completed. Sorum is mainly working on the clinic project.
Smith and staff will be taking on a lot of new projects. At the meeting, the assembly approved project awards for these low bids:
• a $3.265 million bid from Pacific Pile & Marine for the wave barrier project outside the small boat harbor.
• a $160,004 bid from Hamilton Construction for installment of the old ferry terminal bridge across West Creek.
• a $150,130 bid from Hunz & Hunz Enterprises for ADA-approved sidewalks leading up to the Gold Rush Cemetery.
And more could be coming down the pike from the state. The Legislature last weekend approved a capital budget with these Skagway projects:
• $2.5 million from the regional cruise ship tax fund for wastewater treatment plant improvements.
• $1.5 million for Taiya River Bridge rehabilitation.
• $620,000 for Gateway pedestrian improvements along the east side of the road down to the ferry terminal from Centennial Park.

Budget intro: mill rate drop coming?

A $4.491 million operating budget was introduced for first reading April 16, a drop of 4.13 percent from last year. Further cuts could be made in budget work sessions over the next few weeks (see schedule in calendar). Second reading is expected at the second meeting in May.
Members noted the assembly’s budget was 28.24 percent higher than last year. “We’re going to hear about that,” one member muttered.
That part of the budget allows for a doubling of the $10,000 donation to the Chamber of Commerce to help keep it afloat. Chamber board members were present to state their case. They have already cut back hours for their administrator, and will be sharing an office with the Skagway Development Corp in the future, said Jaime Bricker. Some in the audience suggested doing away with SDC instead.
A memo from Borough Treasurer Cindy O’Daniel outlined the recent increase in property values borough-wide. This could translate into a drop in the mill rate from 8 to 7.06 in Service Area I, if the budget numbers hold. – JB

SCHOOL

School District submits budget with $308,303 in increased local funding

The Skagway School District is asking the municipality to make up a “shortfall” in state funding in next year’s budget due to a projected enrollment of 95 students.
When enrollment drops below 101 students (as it did this year), it kicks in a different formula where Skagway is treated as having two schools instead of one. And for some reason, that means less money from the state: $644,068 compared with $840,524 during the current year.
That’s a significant drop for a school district with a proposed operating budget of just over $2 million.
The municipality’s state-mandated local funding cap for school operations has increased accordingly from $1.228 million to about $1.342 million. The district is asking the borough for that new cap amount, as well as an additional $450,392 for these programs: extra-curricular activities, food service, preschool, vocational education, technology improvement, and music. The borough funded most of these programs last year from sales tax receipts, but preschool, voc. ed. and music have been added.
All total, the district’s request from the borough is $1.792 million, an increase of $308,303 from last year.
When this was presented at the joint borough assembly / school board work session Tuesday night, Mayor Tom Cochran said right off that the request ran counter to his direction that all municipal departments submit budgets with a 15 percent reduction. He said he is worried that there could be $2 million less in sales tax this year if tourist spending is down.
But Assemblyman Mike Korsmo noted that other borough departments had not been able to “follow that direction.” The preliminary municipal operating budget approved at first reading April 16 showed an overall reduction of 4.13 percent.
School Superintendent Michael Dickens, said the district made cuts where it could, but wanted to preserve existing programs. Two part-time aides have been cut, and there were reductions in some operating expenses like fuel and electricity, he said, noting that in past years an elementary teacher was cut and the librarian position was reduced to part-time. Despite this, he said, students posted the highest test scores in the state and have done well in academic competitions, and teachers have won awards.
“Every time we give our students the opportunity, they excel,” he said, adding, “The trouble is, how to save money and keep quality programs.”
Dickens suggested looking “at outside money” to fund the district’s shortfall. He noted that they are due to receive an additional $25,000 in federal stimulus money, if the governor approves what the legislature just accepted. But he said they could also look at the U.S. Forest Service Receipts account, which was tapped two years ago to bring back the music program.
Cochran agreed with that approach, saying it would be irresponsible for the assembly to drain more money from sales tax reserves.
“Nobody wants to cut, but it comes down to numbers,” he said. “We are looking at a lot of unknowns.”
The forest receipts fund has been considered a “rainy day account” much like the land fund, something they do not like to touch. But Cochran noted this might be a “rainy day.”
The fund is due to receive a new injection soon, bringing it up to about $773,000. If they take out $308,000 for the school, the fund would still be higher than it was before 2005, noted Assemblyman Dan Henry.
There was no objection at the table to taking this recommendation to the full assembly.
At times, the discussion turned to ways to boost enrollment, from jokingly requiring the new borough manager to adopt kids, to getting more people to have babies. The latter actually has been happening. Nine kids are due to enter kindergarten next year, up from three this year.
The catch is doing what they can to keep the kids in the school and the parents from moving away. Skagway’s recent academic improvement is helping, but just one or two families moving – like this winter – can have a huge impact when the district is teetering near that 101 enrollment mark.
Cochran closed by saying Skagway supports its school. “Skagway is one of the few communities in the nation that is able to fund education out of sales tax,” he said.
A sizable audience of school kids, parents and staff were in attendance and watched the proceedings. Cochran said it was the most people he had seen at a budget work session. They lent silent support and left satisfied.
“Thank you for coming!” Cochran said. – JB

EASTER EGG HUNTERS

Children dash to pick up eggs as the siren sounds on Easter Sunday, and the hunters gather around the Easter Bunny in front of SFD Engine 4, which delivered her to 7th Pasture Pard. Photos by Jeff Brady

• FEATURE: Imaginary spill forces slick answer

• FISH THIS! Tales of the Black Cat

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