January 21, 2011 • Vol. XXXIV, No. 1
Winter Solstice Sunburst
The sun slides across Taiya Inlet during its hour-long appearance around the winter solstice as the ferry Kennicott waits to take on passengers.
Photo by Jeff Brady
Borough proposes cutting out portion of tidelands lease with White Pass
By JEFF BRADY
The Skagway Borough Assembly emerged from a two-hour executive session at a special meeting on Jan. 10 with a proposal to eliminate more than half of the tidelands lease with White Pass.
The direction from the assembly is that a line be drawn from First Avenue south that would split the ore basin and basically eliminate the so-called industrial side of the port from the lease, including the Ore Dock and terminal, barge facility, fuel terminal, and heliport. It would leave White Pass the Broadway cruise ship dock and staging area.
Mayor Tom Cochran said he would get the legal description of the land and forward it to White Pass. The lease proposal is a response to White Pass’s proposed extension of the existing tidelands lease for 30-50 years beyond its end date of 2023. A month ago, members emerged from an executive session with a response that the White Pass proposal for an extended lease was unacceptable.
The mayor also will be writing up a summary of White Pass port revenue and functions to forward to Municipal Attorney Bob Blasco, who met with the assembly via teleconference. The borough has already requested an audit of White Pass’s books as a common carrier.
The mayor acknowledged that the municipality was making the proposal because the state may require public ownership of the Ore Dock if it is to give the borough $10 million in the governor’s budget.
“My concern and the concern of the whole body is that the Legislature will strike it from the budget” if the municipality is not the owner, he said.
Rep. Bill Thomas has brought up the same concerns, and he is co-chair of the House Finance Committee. The borough also is interested in lining up bonding for its match toward the Gateway Project.
White Pass president Eugene Hretzay was reached via telephone on Wednesday and said he had just received the proposal.
“I have to look at it and think about it,” Hretzay said. “We are trying to get it negotiated, and every to and fro shouldn’t be negotiated in the newspaper (or made available) until we get to the final points.”
He said he understood the need for transparency, and wanted to keep the lines of communication open with the borough.
The borough recently passed an ordinance appropriating $100,000 for attorney fees to negotiate a new tidelands lease. During assembly discussion on Jan. 10, the mayor said he would like to schedule a public work session soon on the tidelands lease.
The Gateway Project would expand the Ore Dock to make it feasible to handle cruise ships and ore ships at the same time, or two cruise ships at a time. The governor’s budget has allotted $10 million from the cruise passenger tax fund for “Skagway city dock improvements.” In addition, the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority wants to expand its ore terminal to service two or three more Yukon mines that are interested in shipping to Skagway.
The municipality and White Pass signed a memorandum of understanding last year to work on developing the port, and later approved estoppel agreements that allowed a renegotiation of the terms of the tidelands lease.
White Pass leased and developed the tidelands to get into the ore hauling business in 1968-69, but gave up operation of the ore terminal after the railroad shut down freight operations following the huge Faro, Yukon mine closure in 1982. It has since operated the dock for cruise ships, while allowing ore ships to return in recent years on a space available basis. The ore terminal storage shed was sold to AIDEA, the state development agency, which tore it down and rebuilt it to safer environmental standards.
White Pass still charges a wharfage fee for movement of materials over its dock. A proposed tenfold increase in those fees drew protests from AIDEA and customer Minto Mine last fall. Hretzay said they are still working on a solution.
Last summer Hretzay expressed interest in hauling ore on the railroad again if governments provide loans to help them upgrade track in the U.S. and Canada, and possibly extend the line to Carmacks.
Secondhand smoke control moves past first reading
By JEFF BRADY
The Skagway Borough Assembly on Jan. 6 moved a new version of a secondhand smoke control ordinance to the table and passed it 5-1 on first reading. A public hearing and second reading of the ordinance was scheduled for the Jan. 20 meeting after this issue went to press.
In the past few weeks, the ordinance has been debated at a Health, Education and Welfare Committee meeting and before the full assembly. The assembly kept intact language that would ban smoking in most enclosed spaces where people are employed, including private clubs that operate bars. It unanimously approved an amendment by Hisman that would make the ordinance effective 90 days after its passage to give those businesses that currently allow smoking time to prepare.
The assembly rejected 4-2 an amendment by Tim Cochran that would have allowed designated, sealed-off smoking rooms where smoke is vented outside. Another amendment by Dave Hunz that would have allowed smoking in businesses that have less than two employees failed 5-1, however Hisman proposed a new amendment for second reading that will allow smoking in a single person worksite where the public is not free to enter except by appointment.
Sharon Bolton, a smoker who runs a bookkeeping business that is generally not open to the public, had asked for some leniency at the HEW meeting on Dec. 30.
Others from the Eagles club asked the assembly to hold off on any decision regarding private clubs until the Alaska State Supreme Court makes a ruling on an appeal from the Juneau Aerie of the capital city’s no-smoking ordinance.
Don Corwin, an Eagles trustee, said they were aware that change was coming, but they asked that it be phased in.
“An immediate change in the way we operate would be a hardship for us,” he said.
Eagles manager Michelle Carlson addressed concerns expressed at earlier meetings that if the private clubs were allowed to have smoking then there would not be a “level playing field.” She responded that all of the bars in town serve food, and can absorb the loss of smokers, whereas the clubs do not serve food and would not be able to rely on food costs to make up the loss of business from smokers.
“This would put clubs at a disadvantage,” she said. “The level playing field is not so level.”
Former mayor Stan Selmer said the assembly should pay more attention to pollution from cruise ships and address hydroelectric needs rather than trying to regulate private clubs. He said it reminded him of the time the assembly tried to regulate tour selling within buildings.
“I don’t believe the assembly has the right to regulate a legal activity,” Selmer said.
But former assemblywoman L.C. Cassidy supported the ordinance, saying “it was long overdue.” She said cruise ship pollution is a big problem that the assembly can’t address in ordinance form like smoking, but she urged public education if the smoking ordinance passes.
As Hisman went line-by-line through the ordinance, the Eagles raised several objections, especially the section about “places of employment.” When they asked if they could have a smoking room, as suggested at a previous meeting, Hisman said she did not think it would work.
“This ordinance is about protecting employees,” she said.
When it came before the assembly on Jan. 6, there was more support in the audience for the ordinance. John Tronrud brought up the loss of his brother to lung cancer, and more recently, Sandy Noack Revis.
Jan Wrentmore said she regretted not making her Red Onion Saloon non-smoking sooner, and urged the assembly to include the clubs. Five or six others supported the ordinance as written.
Mark and Beth Smith of The Station said they only supported the ordinance if it applies to restaurants first and asked to leave out clubs and bars for now.
“People like to go to a bar to have a cigarette and a beer at the same time,” Mark Smith said, suggesting that the ordinance be phased in later for bars. Beth Smith suggested they wait for the court ruling, and spend public money on a vote rather than spending money later on lawyers.
When it came to the table, Assemblyman Cochran said urged public education, and then cited several statistics about smoking and deaths from second hand smoke. He noted that all but two communities in Alaska that had smoke control ordinances had an election to put the law in place.
Hunz, the lone dissenting vote, said he believed a business should be allowed to have a choice in the matter if no one else is affected.
Before the vote, Mayor Tom Cochran said the ordinance would affect just three wintertime businesses, and Hisman said that if you don’t believe in the whereases at the beginning of the ordinance, then you should vote no.
They state that “exposure to secondhand smoke in public places affects public health” and that the assembly “recognizes the danger to public health that secondhand smoke causes” and that “the need to breathe air free of secondhand smoke should have priority over the desire and convenience of smoking in public places.”
An update on the Jan. 20 second reading of the ordinance will appear on the News website.
Appeal goes to the dogs
By ANDREW CREMATA
A decision by the Skagway Planning and Zoning Commission to grant Robert Murphy, owner of Alaska Excursions, a conditional use permit for a proposed tour facility on the Klondike Highway was upheld on Jan. 6 by the Borough Assembly, acting as Board of Adjustment. It was the second time Murphy faced the Board of Adjustment to answer an appeal of the P&Z decision filed by Charlotte Jewell, co-owner of neighboring property Jewell Gardens.
Murphy’s new facility will include a restaurant, sled dog demonstrations, and a proposed bear viewing zoo, if allowed by the state. Murphy’s original application was approved by P&Z, but failed to survive the scrutiny of the Board of Adjustment, who said in October that the application needed more details.
Members of the Board of Adjustment on Jan. 6 agreed that the new application was far more comprehensive and they voted to uphold the P&Z decision 5-0 with Assemblyman Dave Hunz abstaining due to conflict of interest. Surprisingly, the decision did not come without some drama.
Murphy asked several times during the meeting for a point of order from the chair, Mayor Tom Cochran. Murphy wanted to know the specifics of what he was addressing and said that, because the burden of proof was on him, he should be allowed to speak first and have an opportunity to rebut Jewell’s comments. Previously, appellants had been given the opportunity to speak first and last when addressing the Board of Adjustment.
Cochran said he was not sure what the proper procedure was, and that it was possible they had been doing it wrong in the past. He addressed former Mayor Tim Bourcy, who was seated in the audience, and asked if he knew what the proper methodology might be.
“I wax skis,” Bourcy, the owner of the Mountain Shop, replied.
Jewell solved the dilemma by conceding to Murphy’s request to speak first and last.
Murphy addressed the only issue mentioned in Jewell’s appeal dealing with the number of puppies that would be allowed at the proposed facility. P&Z limited the number of puppies to three litters, but Jewell requested that the number of puppies be limited to 25. Murphy explained that it was impossible to know how many puppies would be born to each litter and that the number could be anything from four to 14. He added that having three litters available would allow him to rotate dogs so they would not become stressed from overuse.
When Jewell addressed the BOA, she offered an outline of further restrictions she would like to have placed on Murphy’s operation. These included age restrictions for puppies, 24-hour on-site supervision, a six-foot-tall fence around the facility, guidelines on dog feces removal, and a requirement that dogs be fed indoors.
Murphy questioned whether Jewell’s comments should even be heard, considering the fact they were not part of her original appeal. Murphy said that considering anything that was not part of the written appeal was illegal and added that P&Z imposed a one-year review for his permit, a requirement seldom seen on conditional use permits.
“How far do we need to go to be policed?” asked Murphy.
Cochran agreed that only the written appeal should be considered and added that if procedure is not followed then the decision could be thrown out. He directed the BOA to focus only on the issue of the number of puppies allowed at the facility.
Murphy pointed out in his rebuttal that neighboring tour operator Klondike Gold Dredge was operating a similar dog sled demonstration tour without a permit, but apparently had a cruise ship contract in place for the tour.
“I’m trying to do the right thing,” said Murphy. “I’m trying to comply while those who don’t are being rewarded with cruise ship contracts.”
The permit was approved with no amendments to P&Z’s original decision. P&Z is currently dealing with the dredge on permits for its operation. A decision at its Jan. 13 meeting was tabled for more information.
Robotics team wins State
The Skagway robotics team Winter Weezers won the state championship last weekend at the First Lego League’s Anchorage Robot Rendezvous.
“Our robot got a score of 300, which was the highest score in the entire state,” said team member Rosalie Westfall, upon returning home on Monday’s ferry. We then won first place and were all giggling and squealing.”
Teammate Denver Evans said the robot “did everything it was supposed to do,” and they were jumping up and down.
In addition to the overall award, the Skagway team saw its mentor, sophomore Riley Westfall, win the Mentoring Award.
“It was cool because we wrote this long thing about him,” his sister said.
Last year the team qualified for nationals in Atlanta as second place finisher in the state, and this year they are the top team and will have to raise money to travel nearly as far. Nationals are in April in St. Louis, Missouri.
PANTHER SHAKE – Devin Fairbanks and other members of the Skagway High boys basketball team ran over to shake Don Hather’s hand during player introductions at the annual Don Hather Tournament. Hather, in a special recliner, and his wife Betty were able to attend a few games. See basketball coverage in Sports & Rec. and on the SHS Basketball Page. - Jeff Brady
BOROUGH DIGEST (complete digest in print edition)
Treasurer, assistant manager hired
The municipality has hired Randy Wiley as the new borough treasurer and Michelle Gihl as the new administrative assistant to the manager and deputy clerk.
Both have administrative financial experience in the community. Wiley is the former comtroller for the White Pass & Yukon Route, and Gihl is the former Skagway branch manager for Wells Fargo Bank Alaska.
Wiley began work at the end of December and Gihl started in mid-January. They replace Cindy O’Daniel and Michelle Greenstreet who resigned last fall to take other jobs in the community.
Healy reinstated on Planning & Zoning
Mike Healy addressed the assembly at its Jan. 6 meeting about being replaced on the Planning & Zoning Commission before his term was up, and without notice. At a previous meeting, Mayor Tom Cochran said he had appointed John Briner and Mark Schaefer to take the place of Healy and Robert Murphy.
But only Murphy’s term was up. Healy stated that he had gone to Juneau and received training for the commission, only to find out upon his return that he had been removed. He said he was informed of the change by others, not the borough, which made him upset. He indicated there was pressure to remove him based on unsubstantiated rumors. There had been a dispute with a neighbor about noise coming from his bar, Skagway Brewing Co., but he said he had followed the law and done nothing wrong.
Later in the meeting, the mayor said he had no idea Healy had gone for training, but there were allegations that Healy had used his position improperly. He said he tried to get the two parties together to work out their differences, but it did not happen. While some assembly members wanted to hear the other side to see if there was a conflict or an appearance of conflict, others had concerns about removing a person for reasons other than job performance. Healy had left the meeting, so the mayor said he would contact him to see if he was still interested in serving.
At the Jan. 10 special meeting, he announced that Healy had accepted and would be reappointed in place of Briner, who already sits on the Ports and Harbors Advisory Board. – JB
CHRISTMAS EVE SKAGWAY – Those out on the town Christmas Eve were treated to some performance art from Kirk Cosgrove, who played in beachwear in a sandy Kirmse’s window scene titled, “Christmas in Skagway is a day at the beach.” In a more traditional venue, Mrs. Claus reads to the children at the Eagles Christmas Eve Pageant. Jeff Brady
SCHOOL REPORT (complete report in print edition)
Lower enrollment, lower budget forecast
The Skagway School is starting its budget process earlier this year, and more hard decisions are ahead with a projected enrollment drop to just 60 students.
The even sharper drop to start the next school year is due to the loss of 12 graduating seniors and six exchange students. This year’s budget was built for 78 students.
“The good news is I think next year is the bottom,” said Superintendent Jeff Thielbar. Pre-school numbers are strong and graduating classes will be smaller in the future.
But he said the district will have to budget for a potential loss of about $132,000 in its operating fund next year. That is a combination of projected losses from the state foundation formula and lower cap funding from the municipality.
He did say that the more than five percent drop in enrollment would qualify the district for a lesser “hold harmless” reduction from the state.
During a special meeting on Jan. 13, Thielbar asked Skagway School Board members what direction he should take in building the budget, which now must be presented to the borough by Feb. 15, about a month before tenured teacher contracts are offered. The assembly has 90 days to act on the school budget.
One area that likely will see a cut is the special education program, where an aide position will go away after a special needs student graduates.
There was discussion about integrating the technology program into regular classes, as in the elementary, but there was support at the table for keeping the program and seeing if the borough would fund it outside of the operating budget. Last year, after two other teaching positions were cut, technology was folded back into the operating budget.
Board President Chris Ellis said she would like to see some way to maintain the program. Borough assembly liaison Tim Cochran suggested they contact the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other grant sources for funding.
Thielbar encouraged that any solution should not be a “one year band-aid,” adding that “essential teaching positions should be in our operating budget.”
Other ideas ranged from a buy-out offer to get some teachers to retire, and lobbying the Legislature for a dual count period that would help seasonally effected schools like Skagway and some schools up north.
The district is preparing to enter negotiations again with teachers. The budget is expected to be introduced at its Jan. 25 regular meeting.
DDF medals at first meet
Skagway’s small Debate, Drama and Forensics team finally has a meet under its belt, after a delayed start to the season.
And as in past years, Skagway students are in the running for some region honors.
Seniors Brandy Mayo and Alexi Grieser returned from last weekend’s meet in Ketchikan with some medals.
The two girls finished in second place as a team in Readers Theatre.
In the persuasive Original Oration, Mayo took second and Grieser took third. Mayo also finished fourth in Extemporaneous Commentary.
“It was good,” Mayo said. “It was our first meet of the year, and we were three meets behind everybody, but we still did really good.”
The team now prepares for the regional meet in Juneau Feb. 4-5. – JB