December 13, 2013 • Vol. XXXVI, No. 22
Santa's Little Helper
Olive, owned by Deb Potter and Jen Thuss, looks festive in her Yuletide wizard hat outside the AB Hall after the season’s festivities kicked off last weekend. See many more holiday faces in our first Yuletide photo spread of the month on pages 6 and 7 of our print edition, and watch for our more Yuletide photos in the Dec. 24 issue.
Photo by Andrew Cremata
Skagway suffers another crisis at the post office
Staff disruptions, little explanation, more complaints
By KATIE EMMETS
On the surface, the Skagway Post Office went through a tidal shift right after Thanksgiving – from three employees down to one, and then back to three, and now there are two.
Behind the scenes, outraged Skagway residents worked hard to get people back in the post office by lodging formal complaints and contacting their U.S. senators and congressman.
Skagway’s post office now has two workers Dawn Peppinger from Chugiak and Skagway resident Ayrann Burnham. Dean Welch from Washington D.C. left earlier this week, but had been running the Skagway Post Office since November 4.
On Saturday November 30, Burnham, who has been working for the post office on and off for two years, posted on her Facebook profile that she and fellow Skagway resident and USPS employee Rob Bassett were fired.
“It’s unfair and the union is fighting for me, but in the mean time Rob has been there during my vacation and since I got back…and doing more than he should have done with a ‘postmaster’ in the office,” she wrote.
Burnham went on to say that Bassett was at the post office on Saturday November 30 working an hour past his scheduled shift when he was fired by Welch for having a “bad attitude.”
On December 2, there was one employee working at the post office.
That day, the post office didn’t open until 10 a.m. and Welch spent several minutes talking to someone on the phone about how to start the computer system. The line by then was 10-12 deep.
After hearing from multiple people that the post office was a disaster, Skagway resident Reba Radey created a Skagway Swap post on Facebook with information on how to lodge formal complaints with government officials and the USPS.
Radey said she utilizes the post office regularly, as she her daughter’s eco-conscious diapers are shipped from Amazon.com. She also receives sensitive medical and credit card bills and checks her P.O. box about three times a week
Though she didn’t go to the post office on December 2, her husband, Christian Wallace, did.
“He checked our post office box hoping for a package notification slip and decided he wasn’t going to wait in line (to check on it) because it was very long,” she said.
Radey commented on her Skagway Swap post: “I cannot get Fable's diapers locally and we're almost out and I know they are probably ‘back there’ along with some homeopathic remedies I ordered three weeks ago. We're also waiting on a couple of new energy efficient heaters & thermostats that sure would come in handy right NOW. I refuse to give up.”
As she noted further down in the comment section of the post, her dad taught her “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.”
On the morning of Dec. 2, frustrated Skagway residents wait in line while temporary worker Dean Welch talks to someone in Anchorage about how to boot the system. This shot was taken at about 10:30, a half hour after Welch opened the doors two hours late. He said he could not go into detail as to why he was the only employee there that day. Jeff Brady
That morning, Radey made eight phone calls.
One to Alaska Postal Operations Manager Edna Cockerham, one to USPS Consumer Affairs’ Jaqueline Nolan, one to Sen. Lisa Murkowski one to Murkowski contact Sonya Hendrick, one to Sen. Mark Begich one to Rep. Don Young, and one to Governor Sean Parnell’s office.
“The steps I have taken to ensure change at the Skagway USPS Branch are to call and speak with anyone and everyone I felt could affect positive change as quickly as possible,” she said. “In addition, I emailed everyone I called so that there would be a written record of my verbal complaints.”
Radey said she received several replies, including a private Facebook message from Murkowski thanking her for reaching out.
“You know that I keep a close eye on the postal issues in our state, and was very active the last time there was an incident in Skagway that merited action,” Murkowski wrote. “I want you to know that my staff is working on this situation actively and are trying to seek a solution. You’re absolutely right: Skagway’s relationship with the United States Postal Service is a lifeline. I'm working on a path forward and invite you to call my Southeast office or my Anchorage office to be kept updated.”
Radey said she also received a “cut and paste” response from USPS’s Jacqueline Nolan, in which the greeting was “Dear Skagway Resident.”
Radey responded to Nolan by saying she heard others who lodged a formal complaint to her office received a similar version of her generic response.
“What I do not understand is why our two local employees were terminated and the temporary solution to this problem is to bring in interim employees from out of state,” she wrote. “This action is a Band-Aid, when Skagway's post office needs major surgery. Our town's unemployment rate is among the highest in the state during the winter months. The two employees that were terminated are full-time residents of this community. They care about its (residents) and valued their jobs.”
Radey said she has encouraged others —friends, family and community members — to complain.
“I was interviewed by KHNS Radio and encouraged people to complain to everyone and anyone within the state government and at the federal level, that would listen in hopes that something would be done.”
According to Radey’s Skagway Swap post, many other Skagway residents sent e-mails and made phone calls to the same people she did.
Murkowski, who was instrumental in fixing previous post office problems in Skagway, re-activated a direct e-mail connection to her staff and the USPS, which she created after visiting Skagway in 2012.
“This staffing shortfall is not the first of its kind in Skagway, but I want to help the USPS to work on finding and fixing any underlying causes of these repeated issues,” Murkowski said in a press release. “I want to determine whether this staffing change means there is a problem there, and whether there are any additional, larger factors at play. The mail in Skagway – as it is in many Alaskan communities – is a lifeline, providing mail, medications, groceries and other vital items. These days in Skagway it’s also a way to get Christmas presents to and from loved ones, so I want to hear from those affected.”
Murkowsi encourages those who contact her to provide as much specific information as possible about disruptions in service, missing mail and other information that will allow the Post Office to determine and fix the problems at the Skagway Post Office.
The e-mail address she set up is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Murkowski’s Communication Director Matthew Felling, said they are happy the e-mail is up and running as Skagway residents are providing good input.
“We’re trying to figure out if there is a bigger problem than the ones we are seeing,” he said, adding that the cause of post office shortfalls could be the result of something deeper within the USPS. “Once is an issue; twice is a statistic; three times is a problem.”
On December 9, USPS Manager of Marketing and Customer Relations Pamela Moody said neither Burnham nor Bassett were actually fired by the USPS, and she thinks the staffing shortfall was handled well.
“As soon as we realized there was no staff at the post office, we worked to get people in there,” she said.
Moody said Peppinger, who arrived December 4, is a postmaster and also a qualified trainer and interviewer, which would help Skagway when its post office receives applications for the open postmaster and mail processing clerk positions.
“She is a good person to have in there,” Moody said.
Moody said from the very beginning it has been USPS’s hope to have a post office staff that is fully comprised of Skagway residents.
“We opened a clerk job last week, and we’re hoping for some local applicants,” she said, “The post office needs some permanent staffing and it’s our ultimate goal to get people from Skagway in there.”
Though she said the amount of postal workers at any one time depends on the mail volume, Moody said she thinks two workers is the perfect amount for the winter and three would probably suffice in the summer months.
Man still in jail after accidentally shooting woman who stopped his suicide attempt
By KATIE EMMETS
Skagway Resident Carl Timothy “Tim” Forester is still in Lemon Creek Correctional Facility after accidentally shooting his girlfriend while trying to kill himself.
Forester, 49, was arraigned on December 3, and his jury trial is set for March 3.
More details have emerged from the incident in court records.
On November 23, Forester’s girlfriend, who’s name was listed in Alaska Court System documents as “E.R.,” tried to stop Forester from shooting himself with a 12-gauge shotgun at the couple’s home when he accidentally shot her in her right shoulder.
The woman’s clavicle bone was shattered and she was missing a hand-size area of flesh and tissue from her right front shoulder.
Forester was charged with second-degree assault and entered a plea of not guilty.
According to the court documents, the Skagway Police Department received a 9-1-1 call on November 23 at 4:30 p.m. of a woman with a gunshot wound at 9th Avenue and Spring Street.
When SPD officer Dave Sexton arrived, Forester was sitting in the middle of the road with a neighbor, while his girlfriend was at the neighbor’s house getting treatment and waiting for an ambulance to arrive.
Forester told both Sexton and his neighbor that he was trying to commit suicide when his girlfriend tried to stop him and accidentally got shot herself.
When she was at the clinic, the woman told the police she was trying to stop Forester from killing himself and got shot in the process. Both Forester and his girlfriend stated the shot that struck the woman was not intentional.
When Sexton did a search of the house, he found dark fabric matching the woman’s t-shirt, body fluids, flesh and blood on the ceiling in the bedroom where the 12-gauge shotgun was found.
Sexton also observed blood droplets from the bedroom, down the hallway, into the kitchen and out the backdoor.
The woman was transported by U.S. Coast Guard helicopter to Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau and then on to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle.
After surgery, she was listed in satisfactory condition and was later discharged.
Forester will remain in Lemon Creek Correctional Facility until his March 3 court date unless his bail is changed or someone posts the $10,000 bond he is held on.
Assistant District Attorney Amy Williams said if Forester makes bail, he likely will not be allowed to have contact with the victim, per court rules.
Questions to Forester’s attorney about his plea and whether he is getting help while inside prison were not returned by press time.
Airlift Northwest stopped by state from selling memberships
By KATIE EMMETS
Seattle-based air ambulance company Airlift Northwest can no longer sell its AirCare membership to Alaska residents after a recent decision made by the Alaska Division of Insurance.
Because the medical evacuation entity restructured itself in 2010 to become part of the University of Washington, it is no longer eligible to operate under an Alaska insurance statute exemption.
Though it will continue to provide service to all existing Alaska members, it will not be able to renew memberships or create new ones.
According to its website, Airlift Northwest provides its own plane and medical team to transport patients from remote Alaska towns to hospitals in Juneau, Seattle or Anchorage. It then works directly with insurance companies for claims processing, and the purpose of the AirCare membership is to cover the deductible and coinsurance amounts that may not be covered by the primary payer. This membership was $99 per year and covered each member in a household. More than 30 years ago, Airlift Northwest began as a medevac company associated with the UW medical system. In 2005 the air ambulance company operated as a separate 501c(3) nonprofit, but rejoined the university in 2010.
Alaska Division of Insurance’s Marty Hester said the division has allowed Airlift Northwest to sell membership programs in Alaska under an exemption for nonprofit associations since 2008.
“We didn’t tell them to inform us of any restructuring, so they weren’t required to do so,” he said, adding that they asked Airlift Northwest in August if they had restructured anything, to which it replied immediately that it had three years prior.
“Upon finding out their new structure, we analyzed the program with the Department of Law and determined (it) no longer qualified for the exemption for that statute,” he said. “Decisions like this one are not made lightly. It took some time to work with Airlift Northwest and the Department of Law to come to the conclusion we did.”
Though the division learned of Airlift Northwest’s restructure in August, it did not make the call to stop the air ambulance company from selling its membership in Alaska until November.
This decision will affect nearly 2,000 Southeast Alaska residents who are AirCare members.
Earlier this year, Apollo Medi Trans, a medical evacuation flight insurance broker, could not offer insurance plans or renew existing insurance plans because it had not renewed its insurance license with the State of Alaska.
For about four months while it was getting business worked out with the Division of Insurance, Alaskans who were seeking flight insurance or wanting to renew their expired plans had to go elsewhere, and could have signed on with Airlift Northwest.
On November 22, Airlift Northwest Executive Director Chris Martin sent a letter to its Alaska members in which she informed them of the change and encouraged them to contact the Alaska Division of Insurance if they have any questions about the decision.
“I don’t think the insurance commissioner understood how important the membership program was to people in the state of Alaska,” Marin said, adding the whole process with the division has been hard.
“It was extremely difficult to talk to them,” she said. “We sent them everything we had that said we are considered a not-for-profit, but they didn’t want to hear it.”
Martin said Airlift Northwest has been a not-for-profit medical air transportation company associated with the University of Washington since its beginning.
Even though the company rejoined the university, it is still classified in the state of Washington, as part of the University of Washington, as a not-for-profit organization, she said.
“It’s not whether or not they are a not-for-profit organization,” Alaska Division of Insurance’s Marty Hester said. “The statute requires them to be a not-for-profit association in order to operate under the exemption.”
In order to operate under the exemption in Title 21, which is what Premera, Moda and Allstate, and other insurance companies operate under in Alaska, an entity must be a medical service corporation; a municipality; or a nonprofit association.
With the banning of Airlift Northwest AirCare sales, Alaska is now the only state in the US that does not allow medevac membership programs, Chris Martin said, adding that Alaska is the state that most needs membership programs for its residents because of its remote location and its high medevac prices.
Southeast patients who are medevaced are either flown to Anchorage, Juneau or Seattle, which could result in a 900-mile trip, she said.
But Apollo Medi Trans is still operating as normal.
Marty Hester said Apollo MT is able to continue operations because it is underwritten and backed by United Life Insurance Company. Airlift Northwest will still be Apollo’s preferred provider and supply its plane and medical staff for both Apollo insurance holders and those who do not have any form of medevac insurance.
Chris Martin said Airlift Northwest loves working with Apollo and it has a great relationship with the medevac insurance brokerage company.
“We will continue to provide service to Southeast Alaska communities,” she said adding that Airlift Northwest is encouraging its Alaska members to get an insurance policy with Apollo.
“Our members need to know this was absolutely not us,” Martin said of not being able to offer memberships to Alaskans anymore. “This was them — this was the insurance commissioners.”
AMHS will not grant Skagway part ownership of new ferry dock
By DUSTIN STONE
The Alaska Marine Highway System has denied a request from the Municipality of Skagway for joint ownership of the planned new ferry dock.
In a letter dated December 3, AMHS General Manager Captain John F. Falvey Jr. stated “after 30 years of use, the time has come to retire the existing dock, and with it the parties’ respective rights and obligations pertaining to the existing structure.”
In 1978, the City of Skagway contributed a 5/12 share toward construction and maintenance of the existing dock in exchange for a shared-use agreement.
In recent months, the municipality sent several letters to the ferry system seeking partial ownership of the new dock in order to protect Skagway’s many interests in the facility.
According to Falvey, there have been numerous changes since 1978 that support the state’s decision to disallow joint ownership of the new dock.
“AMHS operations at Skagway have gone from a few times a week to more than daily (in summer) with plans for more than twice daily in the near future,” he wrote. “Also, security requirements for AMHS facilities have become more stringent.”
Falvey’s letter also states that, “this decision does not preclude the City or others from use of the new dock.” Instead, he says the state will work out dock use agreements with prospective users on a case-by-case basis “to the extent the proposed use does not compromise AMHS operations.”
AIRBORNE – Skagway elementary students jump and tumble in the Christmas Concert ‘Cirque du Skagway” on Tuesday. Katie Emmets
Gubala to join StreamWalk
Dr. Chad Gubala of Gubala Consulting has been chosen to assume management of Skagway’s StreamWalk project.
Gubala, who is currently under contract with the municipality, will provide project management oversight, while the Taiya Inlet Watershed Council will perform the majority of the work.
The TIWC has been involved with StreamWalk since the project’s inception in 2011 and was originally approved as project manager in September. However, concerns regarding the organization’s qualifications arose on the federal level after receiving funding for the project through the Federal Lands Access Program (FLAP).
The FLAP grant requires the municipality to partner with the Federal Highways Administration and the National Park Service.
According to documents prepared by Interim Borough Manager Emily Deach, “After the Municipality approved TIWC as the project manager, the partners expressed concerns that (TIWC) does not have the qualifications required for the project.”
It was determined that hiring Gubala as project manager, with TIWC serving as sub-contractors, effectively solves the problem.
Gubala will provide oversight, manage workflow and hold weekly meetings to discuss coordination, oversight, weekly tasks and financial reporting.
Deach said that because 90 percent of the work will still be done by TIWC, it would receive “90 percent of the funding as is appropriate (approximately $59,000).”
She also said the approved $65,556 budget for project management will not need to be altered.
Dyea area resident questions lack of trapping regulations
Skagway’s Civic Affairs Committee is looking into issues surrounding trapping in residential areas, following public commentary on the subject given by Bruce Weber at the December 5 Skagway Borough Assembly meeting.
Weber, who lives in the Nahku Bay area, says he is concerned with the safety of pets and children in residential areas where trapping takes place.
“My concern is that I had no idea that trapping is totally unregulated,” he said. “There are no restrictions as to where (you can) and where you can’t trap.”
He said he wanted to be very clear that he has not observed any trappers breaking regulations, and that the traps he has seen in his neighborhood are located in trees, “but there’s nothing preventing the next person from using a ground trap that could catch pets or kids.”
Weber requested the assembly write a code change that would prevent trapping in residential areas.
“This is not an anti-trapping crusade,” he said. “Residential areas are just not appropriate for trapping.”
Assemblyman Tim Cochran agreed with Weber’s comments.
“That area around (Bruce) is quickly becoming a neighborhood. If it’s within a neighborhood, we need to figure out a way to keep (trapping) out of people’s backyards,” he said.
Assemblyman Jim Sager volunteered the committee to look into the subject.
The frame of the old clinic building on 11th Ave. during demolition last month. The area is now reserved for a senior citizen center. MOS photo
Park Service superintendent questions authenticity of 3rd Avenue building color
The Municipality of Skagway has received a complaint from the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park regarding the historical authenticity of the yellow and red building on the northwest corner of Third Avenue and Broadway.
The letter, written by KGRNHP Superintendent Mike Tranel, requests the municipality “support the owner in repainting the building in the spring of 2014 to comply with the new color palette being approved by the Historic District Commission.”
It also states the park believes “the current bright yellow color is outside the color palette and is not the intended color of either the owner or the HDC.”
Tranel and Historic District Commission member Lacey Stoutt, Glacial Smoothies and Espresso owner, both commented on the letter at a December 5 assembly meeting.
Stoutt, who was not on the HDC when the colors were originally approved, said it was the business owner leasing the building, not the building owner, who chose to paint the building, commonly referred to by Skagwegians as the “McDonald’s Jewelry Store,” with the controversial yellow and red.
“There wasn’t a color palette when the decision was made,” she said. “Now there is.”
Stoutt also stated that, as a business owner on Third Avenue, she is concerned the current colors deter new businesses from moving into the two empty storefronts adjacent to the building, a factor she believes decreases tourist traffic on the street.
Assembly members agreed the current color is less than ideal but expressed concerns with the cost of repainting the building.
Several possible solutions were discussed, including asking the park service to repaint the building.
Assembly asks for Denver and Laughton cabins
The assembly approved a letter expressing the municipality’s interest in the possible acquisition of two U.S. Forest Service cabins within the Skagway Borough.
The letter, drafted by Mayor Mark Schaefer, states the municipality’s desire to assist the Forest Service in keeping the Laughton Glacier and Denver Caboose cabins “in the public sphere through potential future acquisition.”
The cabins, located just north of Skagway, are not currently on the list of those being considered for closure by the Forest Service, but Schaefer believes it is best that Skagway make its interest known preemptively.
“They may never put them up for closure,” he said, “but we’ll have a leg up if they ever do.” – DS
AND THEY"RE OFF - Several Skagway residents braved the chill of Thanksgiving morning for the annual Turkey Trot sponsored by the Pizza Station. The event supported the Skagway School's Smithsonian travel program. KE