June 14, 2013 • Vol. XXXVI, No. 10
Live at the Library
Children watch Steven’s Puppets prepare for Rumpelstiltskin during the Skagway Public Library’s reopening on June 3. Children were invited to examine the wooden marionettes after the show and were all smiles. For more photos from the library’s opening, see page 4 of our print edition.
Photo by Elise Giordano
Police investigating arson in Fish Co. fire
Warrant sought for prime suspect who has left Skagway
By KATIE EMMETS
Skagway Police officials are pursuing an arrest warrant for a man suspected of setting a fire that destroyed the Skagway Fish Co. kitchen on May 21.
Skagway Police Chief Ray Leggett said he could not release the man’s name because of pending investigations and a lack of arrest warrant, but did state this man is the only suspect in the case and is a Skagway resident.
The man was interviewed extensively on June 1 but then left the state the following day headed for Washington on a plane, according to reports made to police officials.
Leggett said authorities named the man as the sole suspect after interviews and a voice recording gave police probable cause to link him to the fire.
Findings of a building investigation performed by police and Skagway Fire Department officials showed the fire began next to the kitchen on the outside of the building in the early morning of May 21. The fire call came in at 1:07 a.m.
Assistant Fire Chief Wayne Greenstreet said the state has chosen not to send a representative from the State Fire Marshal’s office and asked SPD to handle the investigation.
Because police officers did not catch the man in the act of setting the fire, they must present the case and any evidence to the district attorney’s office in order to obtain an arrest warrant for him.
Leggett said the fact that the man left town the day after being interviewed might help the department obtain a warrant.
“If the things he said to us are true, why would he leave town the next day?” Leggett said.
Once the warrant is obtained, officials will put forward an all-points bulletin in an attempt to locate him and have him transferred back to Skagway.
Skagway Fish Co. owner Dan Henry had no comment about a potential arson suspect but said he is dealing with his business insurance company to see how much money he will receive to rebuild his restaurant.
If all goes as planned, he said, the Fish Co. will be rebuilt and serving food again before the cruise ship season ends in September.
Dan and Eileen Henry take pictures of the damage at the Skagway Fish Co. for their insurance company. They hope to reopen by September. - Elise Giordano
Rubber tire mulch will not be used on school playground
Mollie Walsh surface to remain, for now
By ELISE GIORDANO
Concerns by parents and teachers about the new rubber mulch in Mollie Walsh Park were enough to persuade the Skagway Borough Assembly to opt for a different playground surface at the school.
After extensive research, citizens for and against the mulch have both come up with different results.
Some have found that the inhalation of the rubber could possibly be dangerous, and also that possible exposure to the water could be deadly for aquatic life.
Others have deemed the research as inconclusive.
After much consideration, the Municipality of Skagway voted Tuesday night to keep the rubber mulch in Mollie Walsh Park and place a rubber mat surface in the Skagway City School playground.
The issue was first addressed in a June 6 assembly meeting.
Parents and teachers filled the assembly chambers and voiced their concerns to the municipality.
Denise Caposey and Courtney Pfannenstein, both elementary teachers at the school, were in attendance.
“I would encourage the assembly to look into other options,” Pfannenstein said. “As a staff member there as well, I’m concerned about my students who I care about deeply.”
Caposey read from the material safety data sheet and noted that zinc and possibly other heavy metals are found in the material.
The reason for choosing the mulch was for its ability to protect children from falling-related injuries.
With the current rubber mulch, children can fall from nine feet and be able to get up and walk away without any serious injuries.
Wood chips were discussed as an alternative, but 12 inches of the chips would have to be added to protect from falls as much as the rubber chips do.
Though the health-related issues were alarming, Mayor Stan Selmer was concerned about the mulch leaving the park.
He said the mulch would end up all over town, which would mean the layer in the park would be thinner and less safe.
Assemblyman Steve Burnham Jr. motioned to leave the rubber mulch in Mollie Walsh Park and change the material used at the school playground.
The assembly was tied, with three votes for the motion and three votes against it.
Mayor Selmer was the deciding yes vote, but later moved to reconsider his vote and table the decision until a special meeting this past Tuesday.
He suggested they look into the prices of the rubber mats before coming to a final decision.
Municipal parks director Gregg Kollasch said the price of the rubber mulch has already been substantial.
Kollasch said it cost $15,000 to fill Mollie Walsh Park and an additional $18,000 to fill the playground. The material is already in town.
He said Anchorage has determined the material to be the best for playgrounds and has already converted 15 playgrounds within the city.
At Tuesday’s meeting, concerned parents and teachers once again voiced their concerns.
Parent Michael Yee said he has already seen children throwing the rubber mulch into Pullen Creek.
“Yeh, the kids love it, but they’re kids,” Yee said. “We’re parents. We’re supposed to guide them and direct them.”
Ken Cox was for the product and said if it were dangerous they wouldn’t be using it.
“I don’t think you have a case,” Cox said.
Tricia Sims, the executive director of the Skagway Development Corporation, said that she had done research on the material before it was installed and did follow up research after residents voiced their concerns.
She said she still came up with the same result and feels good about the decision.
Kollasch presented the prices for the rubber mats and said that just to place them in the fall zones at the school would cost between $140,000 and $150,000, including shipping, materials and labor.
The assembly deliberated on changing one or both parks.
Assemblyman Dan Henry said that if they are going to change the material at the school because of health concerns, then they should also change the material at Mollie Walsh, as visiting children are just as important as the town’s children.
“We should have the same earnest and concern about all children,” Henry said.
Assemblyman Gary Hanson said by keeping one park as is and changing the other, it would be like performing an experiment.
He said children have the choice to go to Mollie Walsh Park, but do not have a choice where to play for school recess.
Assemblyman Paul Reichert said he would rather spend the money and shift course now, noting that rubber mats were the school’s preferred option in the beginning, and that mulch was selected due to the lower cost.
The assembly wasn’t as split Tuesday. When it was apparent a motion would pass to keep the rubber mulch in Mollie Walsh Park and install the rubber mats at the school playground would pass, all voted in favor.
“Let’s do what’s right for the kids,” Hanson said.
Finlayson hears assembly concerns to move forward on Gateway Project; WP still wants lease extensions for cruise dock use
By KATIE EMMETS
For the first time in the recent past, the Skagway Borough Assembly discussed matters regarding White Pass and Yukon Route tidelands lease negotiations and Ore Dock access in an open session.
The June 11 special assembly meeting was scheduled specifically to hold an executive session with White Pass President John Finlayson to talk about recent written exchanges between White Pass and the municipality regarding Skagway Ore Dock access for Gateway Project Planning and White Pass’s desire for a lease extension. After the communications became available to the public, however, the assembly decided against the executive session and held the meeting in regular session.
On February 27, Skagway interim borough manager Tom Healy sent Finlayson, the new company president, a draft agreement and a plan overview in regard to the municipality having access to Skagway’s Ore Dock for the sole purpose of gathering information for the Gateway Project. Between a start date agreed upon by both parties and June 30 2014, the municipality would have time to perform surveys and investigations and come up with design work for the project.
In a May 28 letter to Mayor Stan Selmer, Finlayson responded to the access request and made it clear that ClubLink Enterprises Limited is interested in an extension to its leases of the Broadway Dock and the south end of the Ore Dock while allowing the municipality to use the north end of the Ore Dock for its Gateway Project during the remainder of its lease, which expires in 2023.
For nearly a half hour, Skagway Mayor Stan Selmer and assembly members reviewed concerns about a post 2023 waterfront lease extension with Finlayson, who said he was happy to be meeting with assembly members face-to-face on these issues.
Though assembly members wanted to discuss ore dock access for Gateway Project engineering, Finlayson said he was there only to hear the concerns of the municipality regarding an extension of the 2023 tidelands lease.
Selmer cited a few reasons, which included a lack of concern for the clean up of contaminated sediments in the ore basin that was a result of White Pass ore terminal operation in the 1970s, and the fact that the railroad doesn’t want to haul freight. Selmer also stated that the assembly is frustrated with the four-month delay White Pass is putting on the Gateway Project, as the municipality has a very public time clock in which to fund the project.
“We’re not able to encumber the money for the project,” the mayor said. “And we have to spend it before June 30, 2016.”
Selmer told Finlayson that he hasn’t seen an unwillingness from White Pass to cooperate, but he thinks they just need to sit down and hash it all out.
Finlayson said he agrees and wants to continue to talk with assembly members in person.
“I would like to expedite this process with personal meetings instead of letters,” Finlayson said. “I understand the urgency, and I will always be available on long or short-term notice to come and discuss this.”
Problems persist at Skagway Post Office
By KATIE EMMETS
Skagway residents got a false sense of resolution when they thought the post office problems were gone during winter months, but as soon as the summer picked up, so did the issues — again.
After a few weeks of receiving complaints, Skagway Mayor Stan Selmer sent an e-mail to USPS Alaska District Manager Ron Haberman to let him know of the post office conditions.
“I am getting numerous calls again this week about an utter breakdown in the service of the Skagway Post Office,” Selmer wrote on June 7. “I am also hearing that the shape the post office is in right now is worse than it was at any time last year.”
Selmer said he heard there were two Alaska Marine Line containers of Skagway mail sitting in Juneau because Skagway couldn’t handle the mail volume. He also said he heard all local mail was being sent to Juneau for sorting, and because of this, merchants in town are getting mailed payments from local customers late when they were mailed two weeks ahead of the 30-day payment deadline.
Selmer said he heard medicines were arriving late, which is a big health concern.
On June 7, when Selmer wrote the e-mail, there were only two post office workers staffing the Skagway Post Office after the interim postmaster quit on May 24.
A s of June 11, Selmer said, there are three people working at the post office, including a postmaster from Seward, a post office worker from Juneau and a local Skagway casual hire; they are trying to get the post office up to speed.
Skagway resident Tim Cochran used to work at the local post office a few years ago.
“There were three up front and two casual employees in the back,” he said. “We worked (six days a week for ten hours a day) with no lunch hour and on holidays, and we barely kept up with the summer mail volume in 2003. There is a much higher volume now.”
Cochran said the lines at the counter have been wrapping around the front room for weeks. With about 10,000 people in town on four-ship days, a lot of the post office customers are angry after waiting in line 20 minutes to buy stamps, Cochran said.
“There used to be a stamp machine when I worked there,” he said, adding that they’ve since done away with it.
Cochran said he is diabetic and has also been concerned about getting his medication on time with the delays in mail delivery. Since Skagway does not have a pharmacy, a lot of its residents receive their medicines by mail.
Cochran said he wrote a letter of complaint to Haberman and has yet to hear back, though he knows of others in town who have written to him and received a response.
On Tuesday, Cochran was coming out of the post office when he met a USPS worker who was visiting Skagway on a cruise and talking to his mom, Ginny Cochran. After explaining the state of the Skagway post office, the man called the situation appalling and suggested that those who have complaints file them formally on USPS.gov website.
Those receiving complaints via USPS.gov have to respond within 24 hours, whereas if there is a complaint sent to someone specific they might not forward it on if it’s a poor reflection on them, the USPS employee told him.
In a June 11 special assembly meeting, Selmer told members that Haberman responded to his letter by saying that the mayor’s concerns were unfounded and everything was OK at the post office. But Selmer took out three envelopes sent from Skagway addressed to a Skagway PO box that were postmarked from Juneau.
“I encourage residents to come and be professional about their concerns but not let it be said that what they’re saying isn’t true,” Selmer said. “Something is still broken at the post office, but Ron Haberman seems willing to work with us to fix it.”
FIRST SUMMIT – Bob Vollhaber of Michigan was first over the trail this season. After paddling up the Inside Passage in a Kruger canoe, he arrived in early May on a quest to haul all his gear over the Chilkoot and then get on the lakes. Despite warnings about avalanche danger, Vollhabers charged onward. He needed three trips to get his gear up the trail, and then a fourth haul up the Golden Stairs. Above, he is pictured with his outfit at the summit. His blog states: “Encountered deep snow from Sheep Camp to Deep Camp (12 miles) so there was no trail to follow.... Took a couple poor routes and had to backtrack and find a better way. Avalanche possibilities were real so I kept that in mind as I chose a route. Had a couple slush slides come down the slopes too near.” Vollhaber followed the ice out on the lakes and arrived in Whitehorse on June 3. He reached Dawson City on June 10. From there he will paddle and portage to his old homestead on the Chandalar River, and then down the Koyukuk and lower Yukon to the Bering Sea, and then around the SW Alaska coast to Cook Inlet. See his blog at: http://beav-alaskaadventure.blogspot.com Photo submitted
Chilkoot Trail still on alert
Due to a cold spring and a late snowmelt, an extended avalanche season is forecast along the Chilkoot Trail.
The trail is snow-free until about one mile north of Sheep Camp, where there is 65 percent snow coverage until the Chilkoot Pass From the pass to Lindeman, hikers can expect 90 percent snow coverage.
Tent platforms on the U.S. side of the trail are snow free.
National Park Service Ranger Tim Steidel said conditions along the trail are going to change fairly quickly.
Avalanche hazards are low to moderate on the U.S. side of the trail, but the Canadian side is still covered in snow.
An avalanche cycle that should have started in April or May is just now beginning.
“Hikers could find themselves in extreme avalanche hazards,” Steidel said.
It is advised that hikers get over the pass before noon, as snow becomes slushy and is more prone to avalanches.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if we have some avalanches on the Canadian side through August,” he said.
But Steidel anticipates the avalanche hazard on the U.S. side should be over by the end of the week.
Aside from avalanche hazards, hikers are also advised to cross streams by following the wands, or visibility markers, instead of crossing over the snow bridges as they are melting.
The park service has also been busy repairing bridges along the trail.
Deep Lake bridge on the Canadian side was vandalized during the winter but is now repaired and ready for hikers to use.
Another damaged bridge near Mile 7 was also repaired by the park service in just three days. Steidel said the bridge had just reached its time and was in need of repair. A time-lapse video of the repair can be found on the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park’s Facebook page. – EG
CHUGGING ALONG – Skagway railroad conductor Pete Griffard smiles through the cramps as he crosses the Taiya River bridge in Dyea on the second half of the Skagway Marathon. Griffard accomplished his goal – to finish – along with about 50 other runners/walkers. See coverage in Sports and Rec. Jeff Brady
Garden City RV park property purchase moves forward
The Skagway Borough Assembly voted unanimously to purchase Garden City RV Park from the Catholic Diocese of Juneau during a May 23 special meeting, but the decision was brought back up again at a June 6 regular meeting to further discussion.
During hear citizens present, resident Dennis Bousson said if the assembly builds the proposed public safety building there, which has been suggested, the building would never generate any revenue for the borough.
“I think the area would be better suited toward properties used for residences,” he said.
He also said a $1.7 million dollar price tag would mean the 24 individual lots were $71,000 each, which he thought was too high for lots with no municipal entities such as sidewalks, streets, curbs and utilities not already in place.
Assemblyman Dan Henry said it was the consensus of the assembly in a special May 23 meeting to purchase the RV park for 1.7 million with a $600,000 down payment.
“Their approach to this is really wanting to work with us and putting the deal together to work with us,” he said. “After all it was originally our property — we gave it to him.”
Assemblyman and Public Safety Chair Gary Hanson, who has done a lot of research on the public safety building, told the assembly that he is still in favor of the RV park purchase but doesn’t think it would be the best place for the proposed building.
During the discussion, Mayor Stan Selmer said he thinks the municipality should move forward with the purchase, continue to use the lot as an RV park during the transitional period to make up for the lack of seasonal housing while incurring revenue to help pay for the cost of the lot purchase. The municipality could then sell the lots for residences, he said.
“It certainly seems to me, with the size of the Pullen Creek RV Park and the revenue we get from that park right now, that we could make our payments for that mortgage year after year by having that property in our ownership and leasing that park to a vendor who will pay us to pay down the mortgage,” Selmer said.
After the mortgage is paid off in eight years they can continue to have an RV park or the municipality could sell the lots for residential housing.
“I’m suggesting its ok to look at this with a plan in mind to continue to represent the seasonal shortage we know we have and maybe even eliminate it by having it be more of a seasonal place,” Selmer said.
The assembly agreed to continue with the purchase and is waiting on paperwork, which will then be reviewed by the borough attorney. – KE
Second reading of FY14 budget passes; assembly votes to transfer more sales tax to general fund
The Skagway Borough Assembly passed the second reading of the Fiscal Year 2014 municipal budget unanimously at a special meeting on June 11 after two postponed readings and several amendments.
Though assembly members discussed not funding the Skagway Chamber of Commerce again after Fiscal Year 2013, the assembly approved $22,500 of the $45,000 requested. It also voted to give KHNS $14,000 for operating costs and an additional $6,000 for Skagway studio equipment.
The FY14 General Fund revenue was totaling $6,305,639 but the FY14 General Fund expenses were totaling $7,043,871, which was showing a deficit of $738,232.
Because the general fund was in a deficit position, multiple options to adjust the fund were discussed. Options included raising the mill rate, cutting expenditures and passing an ordinance to increase sales tax funding allowable in the General Fund.
In a June 6 meeting Assemblyman Dan Henry quickly spoke out in opposition of increasing the mill rate, which would increase property taxes for Skagway homeowners and said it would never happen.
The assembly settled on limiting the use of tax proceeds to increase the allowable allocation of the proceeds to the general fund.
Municipal labor costs continue to increase which means more expenses coming from the General Fund. Because municipal code allows for the equivalent of 1.5 mills to be transferred from the sales tax fund to the general fund to cover these costs and fix the deficit, the assembly voted unanimously in the special meeting to amend Skagway Municipal Code section 4.08.07(A)(5) to allow for an increased allocation of sales tax proceeds to the general fund to $4.5 million.
Borough Treasurer Heather Rodig wrote in a memo attached to the budget that municipal workers’ health benefit expenses have increased 16.9 percent and not the projected 18 percent which reduced expenses by about $10,000 since the first reading of the budget on April 18.
The third and final reading of the budget will take place on June 20. — KE
Healy hired to help with plant payment strategy
The Skagway Borough Assembly directed Borough Manager George Edes to offer former borough manager Tom Healy a contract to work with the borough attorney and construction consultants to decipher how much money the municipality will pay McGraw Construction for Skagway Wastewater Treatment Plant renovations
The municipality still owes McGraw contractors money after completing construction on the treatment plant earlier this year and plans to determine the amount soon.
The assembly approved receiving a $450,000 loan from the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which will be used to cover the cost of equipment for the treatment plant upgrade project.
The loan would be provided through the ARRA Stimulus money that is 90% forgiven. The municipality’s wastewater treatment plant upgrade funding would pay for the remaining 10 percent. — KE/EG
Transfer students allowed to bring in weighted grades
After a few months of discussion, the Skagway School Board voted to allow transferring high school students to keep weighted advanced placement course grades but set an attendance requirement for class valedictorian and salutatorian so transfer students wouldn’t have an unfair advantage over existing students.
Originally, school policy did not allow transfer students to bring in weighted grades for AP classes taken outside of Skagway School because teachers wouldn’t be able to gauge what the student learned or at what difficulty level the class was taught. Also, because Skagway School only has the capacity to offer one AP class, board members were worried students transferring into the school would academically surpass students who have attended Skagway School for more than the four high school years.
Before amending it during the May 28 meeting, the policy stated that the class of 2014 would receive a 1.25 weighting of grades for AP courses taken while attending Skagway School but any AP course taken outside of Skagway School or by correspondence wouldn’t be weighted as 1.00.
Board member Darren Belisle agreed with the original wording and said he didn’t think it was fair for a transfer student to come in with weighted grades and become valedictorian over a life-long Skagway student who didn’t have the same opportunities.
Board member Cara Cosgrove, whose children have taken Advanced Placement courses outside of Skagway School, thought it was unfair to not give a student a weighted grade that he or she worked hard for because they weren’t from Skagway. Cosgrove added that students who earned the weighted grades should have them on their record when applying to colleges, as it is very competitive. She also said that all students, no matter if they have been in attendance since kindergarten or transferred to Skagway halfway through their senior year, are Skagway School students and should be treated equally.
In an April 30 meeting, AP English teacher Kent Fielding told board members that each AP course is uniform and taught very similarly across the country, which eased concerns of how AP classes were handled outside of Skagway School.
In the April 30 meeting, board member John Hischer said he thinks students should get credit for what they are doing no matter where and suggested there be a requirement of three fully attended high school years at Skagway School in order to become valedictorian or salutatorian of a graduating class. This way, Skagway School students who have put forth every effort in their studies wouldn’t be competing with a student transferring in with a higher weighted GPA, and students coming to Skagway won’t be penalized for not having attended all four high school years.
After unanimously agreeing on the three-year requirement, Superintendent Jeff Thielbar was directed to change the policy to reflect the board’s decision and allow outside students to transfer in weighted AP course grades.