January 29, 2010 • Vol. XXXIII, No. 1
Municipal worker Tyson Ames digs into a huge pile of snow on Broadway with his loader following a Jan. 11 storm that dumped 10 inches of snow on the town. Drifts were much deeper, helped by our famous winter north winds. Then it warmed up and avalanches closed the highway for a few days. But the kids still went to school, basketball games went on, and locals trudged around in their ‘creepers’ on the ice. All in all, it’s been a fairly easy winter so far. Dimitra Lavrakas
AIDEA wants to extend ore terminal lease
Wolverine mine opts for longer haul to Stewart
By JEFF BRADY
The Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority has written the municipality asking for a 30-year lease of the Skagway Ore Terminal beginning in March 2023 – when the current White Pass tidelands lease expires.
AIDEA currently sub-leases the ore terminal property from White Pass, which holds the original tidelands lease from the municipality dating back to 1968. White Pass built and ran the terminal until it stopped hauling ore by rail in 1982. After ore from Yukon mines moved to trucking, AIDEA, a state-owned development agency, stepped in to acquire and renovate the terminal. White Pass still operates the dock.
In a letter dated Dec. 11, 2009, AIDEA Executive Director Ted Leonard outlined the agency’s reasons for the request:
• Its current user, Capstone Mining Co., is expecting additional copper/gold discoveries and will eventually request a user agreement extension beyond 2023.
• Other Canadian mines are expected to transship to Skagway beyond 2023.
• AIDEA and the municipality enjoy a good business relationship, having most recently cooperated on the federal TIGER grant application to improve port facilities.
• A purchase agreement between AIDEA and White Pass “anticipates that the authority would seek a lease directly with the municipality.”
• The authority requests continued use of the Ore Dock beyond 2023.
• As additional opportunities occur, AIDEA would like to build its presence in Skagway and its relationship with the municipality.
• AIDEA continues receiving inquiries from potential users and “can help promote these additional opportunities for growth and development in Skagway better if the lease is extended.”
Leonard closed the letter by saying he looked forward to discussing the request “at your earliest convenience.”
The request was the top agenda item for the Skagway Port Commission at its first meeting of the new year on Jan. 19, which occurred while Mayor Tom Cochran and Borough Manager Tom Smith were attending the annual Mineral Explorations Roundup in Vancouver.
In an e-mail to the commission, the mayor advised that they “take the AIDEA letter under consideration” pending commission investigation and research into the purchase agreement language between White Pass and AIDEA. The borough also is in discussions with White Pass on a Memorandum of Understanding regarding the ore dock and terminal, should the TIGER grant project be approved.
Commission members heeded the mayor’s recommendation, but were pleased with AIDEA’s interest in the port’s future.
“It’s a ‘me first, me first’ kind of thing,” said chair John Tronrud.
“At this point we could do no better than having a partner like AIDEA, a quasi-government organization,” said Gary Hanson. “They are able to weather the cycles of mining more than private industry.”
Tronrud said the issue was complex, as it could deal with changes in the White Pass lease, as well as a possible extension. He also wanted to bounce the idea off the Yukon Government, as he and the mayor were going to be meeting with representatives in Whitehorse on Jan. 26.
“The reality is we have to keep all the players involved,” he said.
Tronrud said they should thank AIDEA for the letter and let them know it is being “taken under advisement as we see how it affects us and all parties, and then we can move forward.”
In other business, commission members were perplexed by reports that the Wolverine mine south of Ross River, Yukon would be shipping its ore to Stewart, B.C. when it starts production this year. The news was confirmed on the Yukon Zinc website, which said the ore would be trucked 860 kilometers to Stewart. That’s about twice the distance from the mine to Skagway.
Commission member Joe Coveno said they should seek an explanation from Yukon Zinc as to why they chose Stewart, and try to change their mind.
In an e-mail statement this week, Ray Mah, Chief Operating Officer of Yukon Zinc Corporation, offered an explanation, but did not go into specifics: “Stewart Bulk Terminals will store and load concentrates onto vessels from the Wolverine Mine to smelters located in Asia. Skagway Port was a viable alternative for Yukon Zinc however the decision to award the contract to Stewart Bulk Terminals was based on commercial and technical merits.”
In the meantime, the next potential user for the Skagway terminal could be the Selwyn Resources mine, a huge zinc-lead property in the Howard’s Pass district of eastern Yukon. It could be in production by 2013, according to a Dec. 15 report in the Whitehorse Star.
A decision on the TIGER grant has been pushed to the spring, but the borough’s joint application with AIDEA appears to be making headway. Tronrud said there were 50 times the number of requests versus funds available, but that the federal government wants to discuss the project with them further at the end of February.
“It sounds like we are in the running,” said Hanson.
“It’s encouraging,” added Tronrud. “We did a good enough job of getting that application together.”
The Transportation Infrastructure Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) request was for as much as $117 million, but was divided into four phases that could be funded separately.
Finally, member Steve Hites, speaking via teleconference, reported on the new Alaska Alliance for Cruise Travel (Alaska ACT), formed by six tour operators last month to address ways to stem the loss of cruise ships to Alaska. They recently made a presentation to the Resource Development Council, are planning a booth at Sea Trade in Miami in March, and have presented position papers on taxation and other issues for the legislature.
Hites said, “The over-abundance of rules and regulations and taxation makes the cost of business prohibitive and not competitive with the rest of the world.”
He urged commission members and others to go to the website, www.alaskaact.com and sign up to join the effort.
“If we don’t want to lose more ships, we have to do something,” he said.
The commission had no objection to passing on the request to the Borough Assembly and urge individuals to contribute.
Medevac insurance meetings mostly positive
PHOTO: Assemblywoman Colette Hisman answers questions from the public at the Jan. 15 town meeting. Dimitra Lavrakas
By DIMITRA LAVRAKAS
Two meetings in early January took a decidedly positive view of the proposed medevac insurance plan through insurance broker Apollo MT.
For $90 per family, the insurance would cover the extreme high costs of medevacs from Skagway to Juneau or even the Lower 48. For $32,000, the entire town would be covered, with the city administration keeping track of who is covered depending on whether or not they are a year-round resident or if they have paid the premium.
A person also would be covered if they were anywhere in Alaska, the Yukon, or in Northern British Columbia and it also covers a ride down to Seattle.
And the Skagway Volunteer EMS Service would be paid for transporting the patient from their home to the clinic and from the clinic to the airport.
Currently, the ambulance policy offered by the municipality covers only the ambulance ride from a home to the clinic, not from the clinic to the airport. And only for one time a year.
Under the proposed plan, a person is covered for unlimited medevacs.
Tim Baker, Apollo MT vice president, teleconferenced in to a Health, Education and Welfare Committee meeting Jan. 14, and said that one person in Delta Junction was medevaced “12 or 13 times.”
The insurance would cover ground and air transportation, except if a person uses it to commit a felony or if the incident is during an act of war.
“When Skagway Air Service provided medevacs to Juneau, it was $260,” said Mayor Tom Cochran.
Then it was made illegal by Bartlett Regional Hospital to use Skagway Air, he said, jumping the price to $7,000, until Guardian Flight was sold, and now it’s $23,000.
Baker said medevacs are very expensive due to high costs of the plane and the providers on board.
The cost of the insurance was based on the average number of households in Skagway – about 355, Baker figured. Cochran said the number was close and the city figured it at 350 households.
Based on an honor system, he said that in the time that other cities have had this in place, no one has ever tried to sneak onto the rolls.
“It’s up to you who is covered,” Baker said.
Simon Claydon, one of the organizers behind having the borough adopt the plan, said that Alaska Power & Telephone was considering taking out the policy for its employees. Baker said that might help.
This week, Darren Belisle, lead lineman for AP&T, said the human resources person was still working on it.
For residents, they could pay an extra $25 to their quarterly city utilities bill, and the extra $10 would go to cover someone who might be in financial need.
Claydon is hoping to get support from local benevolent organizations and businesses. So far, he has $14,000 in pledges from the Eagles, Eagles Auxiliary, American Legion and businesses.
At the Jan. 15 town meeting after the hamburger feed at the Elks Lodge, John Trunrud, of the Elks, said the organization could not promise a sustained donation.
“This is a tough year for us,” he said. “We have a convention here, and this is something we might not be able to do this year.”
But, he said, “If families can’t afford to pay for the plan, they can come to the Elks and we can help them.”
Tronrud questioned how a person who comes up for the summer to work could be covered.
“People who come and work have to pay their 90 bucks,” Cochran said, adding “I can’t find much that’s wrong with this,” Cochran said.
More meetings will be scheduled to discuss adopting the plan. The Skagway Medevac Fund was on the agenda for this Wednesday’s assembly meeting (postponed from Jan. 21) after this issue’s deadline.
Virtual High School demonstrated at school forum, already in use
Task force recommended to address enrollment
PHOTO: Les McCormick introduces the Petersburg staff who administer the VHS program.
By JEFF BRADY
About 40 parents and community members saw a demonstration of the Virtual High School program via a live video feed to Petersburg High School at the start of the annual School Community Forum on Jan. 20.
Three PHS staff members, technology coordinator Don Holmes, site coordinator Debbie Tice, and VHS teacher Sue Hardin, explained how the program has opened up learning opportunities for PHS students over the past four years.
The program is already in a test mode here, with 10 Skagway High School students taking courses this semester, said Superintendent Les McCormick.
The VHS actually does not use video technology, parents learned, as all of the instruction and class discussions are done online. Hardin, who teaches an Advanced Placement (AP) Literature course, said she has students from the east coast of the U.S. to China, so it would be impossible to do a video feed.
“It’s nice that your schedule does not have to fit into anywhere else,” Holmes said.
It takes a certain type of student to be successful in the program, Tice added. Those who do best aren’t necessarily the smartest, but the ones who can apply themselves and keep up with the work load.
Unlike some correspondence courses offered within the state, VHS assignments must be turned in weekly, and students are required to participate in online discussions. Basically, they post comments and answer questions, though not always in real time. Tice monitors the work to make sure the students keep up. If they don’t, she hears from the teacher.
In Petersburg, students are not allowed to take courses that are already offered at the high school. But they have a choice of 400 courses, as long as they can get in one of the 25 seats for each course.
Hardin said that by the end of a semester, she feels she knows her students, even though all she ever sees of them is a photo. Generally there are seven or eight assignments a week. And the discussions, though online, are just as compelling as in a regular class.
“Kids have to bust it to keep up,” Hardin said. “They have to be self-disciplined and have the time in the school day to do it.”
The teachers were asked how Petersburg students involved in sports or DDF are able to keep up. Most can, they said, because the course work is online and kids can access them any time on a lap top. If they are on a long trip, they can discuss options with the teacher for turning in something late.
Hardin and Tice said there is an interview process before a student can apply for courses. And they encourage a room set aside for students to do the work. In Petersburg, it’s the library, where Tice is located. Some kids in Skagway have been known to sit in the back of a regular class or even in the hallway to do their correspondence work, and that can be distracting for the student.
McCormick said an evaluation process by VHS weeds out any bad teachers over time.
Hardin said students evaluate her as well. “Most say they learned more than they expected,” she said, though she has never seen the actual evaluations compiled by VHS. “If there is a problems, they will tell me.”
Once the course work is completed, there is a final exam, and the district gets a copy. The grade goes right on the student’s transcript as if it were taught in the same school.
As the forum broke up into tables with board members and the superintendent, discussion on the VHS program continued. Most supported the program, but had more questions.
Parent Cara Cosgrove said the district should do a cost comparison on VHS versus a similar APEX program offered through the Anchorage district. She said it also is a rigorous program and is currently paying $450 per correspondence course for her high school students. The district is looking at a cost of $6,100 annually for the VHS program, with a discount if it supplies a teacher.
Hardin said the VHS course takes up one-seventh of her time, roughly a class period with extra prep time. If a teacher offered in Skagway, then he or she would teach one less period in the school day.
“Is it a good idea – absolutely,” said board member Chris Ellis.
Fellow board member Darren Belisle added, “No way will it replace a teacher, it will offer students more.”
Parent Karl Klupar said critical thinking occurs best in a classroom setting, and Julene Fairbanks added that VHS courses “should not be a replacement for core classes.”
At another table, McCormick said students were given the option to take the VHS trial courses during registration at the end of last semester. The 10 spaces (in nine different classes) filled pretty fast. If the program is a success, then the school would get 25 spaces for the fall semester, he added.
Several parents, however, said they should have been notified about the trial VHS program this semester, as they were not aware it had been implemented. They said notices should have gone out to parents before offering it to students during second semester registration.
Ellis said the VHS option is one way the district is looking at keeping students in Skagway. Keeping and growing enrollment also occupied the much of the discussions at the Community Forum tables.
Several ideas were offered, including:
• support for port development.
• lure more foreign exchange students.
• find a way for Skagway to register and count home-schooled children, not only here but around the state.
• urge the borough to offer land for low-priced starter homes so young families can buy into the community and stay here.
• investigate a boarding house concept with the Skagway Development Corp. where students from around the state could live in a building next to the school and take classes in the school.
• a Welcome Wagon for new residents to the community.
• market the school better on its website and Facebook, making it a “magnet school.”
One thing all agreed on was that a task force was needed to implement some of the above ideas, and come up with others to stave off the enrollment decline.
Ironically, Skagway’s enrollment decline has occurred as the population has basically remained the same, or even grown. According to a Department of Labor report this week, the population went from 862 in 2000 to a low of 834 in 2005, but jumped up to 865 in 2009. School enrollment, however, has been declining over the decade, and now is below 90.
Klupar said he had run several models that showed a population of 1,500 would solve all of Skagway’s problems, but he said that was a dream. Right now, 900 could mean 20 more families in town.
Board member Joanne Korsmo said the district has an immediate problem going into the next budget cycle, and she is calling on people to host foreign exchange students.
“We have to pass a budget and we don’t want to lose anyone that we have employed,” she said.
The board discussed many of the Community Forum suggestions at Tuesday night’s regular meeting, and will use them to formulate their annual goals during a work session on Wednesday, Feb. 3 at 6 p.m.
With their trophies and robots, front row from left: Denver Evans, Hailey Jensen, Rosalie Westfall, Kiara Selmer, and Riley Westfall; back row: coach Greg Clem, Elena Saldi, Yasha Saldi, Trevor Cox, and coach Vivian Meyer. John Westfall
Second in state for Skagway robotics team
Skagway’s X-Treme Botz robotics team of Riley Westfall, Rosalie Westfall, Trevor Cox , and Kiara Selmer earned the Second Place Champions Award at the Anchorage Robot Rendezvous Statewide Championship Tournament on Jan. 16.
There were 48 teams from all over the state competing. To be considered for this prestigious award, the team had to perform well in all four categories: Project, Teamwork, Robotic Design and Robot Performance.
Skagway team Smart Crashers also performed well. Team members Elena Saldi, Yasha Saldi, Denver Evans and Hailey Jensen received third place in the Robot Performance Award, which is given to the robot that is able to score the most points pursuing Challenge missions on the competition field.
The students described the tournament as exciting, competitive, and lots of fun. There were twists and turns. Sometimes the robot would work, and sometimes it wouldn’t.
First Lego League inspires students to learn more about science and technology, solve problems, and work as a team. Coaches Vivian Meyer, John Westfall and Greg Clem, are very proud of how hard the students worked, and how professionally they performed.
The Skagway Robotics Teams will demonstrate to the public at 4 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 5 at the school in room 303-304.
The team thanks its many supporters: White Pass, Skagway Brew Co., Eagles, Elks, Hunz & Hunz, Sgt. Prestons, Sweet Tooth, Alaska Fairy Tales, Cara Cosgrove, and all the parents, grandparents and townspeople who helped them to achieve these awards.
BOROUGH DIGEST (complete digest in print edition)
Senior tax vote coming
The Skagway Borough Assembly has passed an ordinance calling for a special election on April 6 to raise the property tax exemption for senior citizens borough-wide.
The question will read, “Shall the Municipality of Skagway increase the senior citizen property tax exemption level from $150,000 to $250,000 for primary residences within the Municipality of Skagway Borough while still retaining the requirements of AS 29.45?”
Those requirements allow an increase of the amount over $150,000 by voter approval for anyone 65 or older, disabled veterans, or at least 60 years old and a widow or widower of a person who qualified for an exemption.
Finance chair Dan Henry said the loss to the borough would be about $22,000, less than a tenth of a percent of the mill rate, if the new exemption level passes, and can be absorbed by the balance of tax payers.
Local senior Barb Brodersen said their property tax had increased 110 percent in 10 years, while their fixed income had not increased much. She supported the measure. Mavis Henricksen said while she opposed the increase, it would make little difference, and she would rather see the borough work toward more economic development.
The measure passed first reading on Jan. 7 by a 5-0 vote (Paul Reichert was absent). Second reading and final passage was Wednesday Jan. 27 after this issue’s deadline.
Sale signage ordinance back before assembly
The degree to which the municipality can report violations of the Alaska Unfair Trade Practices Act is before the Skagway Borough Assembly again.
At the Historic District Commission’s request, the assembly on Dec. 16 officially defeated one ordinance, 09-17, and is replacing it with another, 09-23, which passed first reading but is subject to further review by the HDC, administration, and the borough attorney.
HDC chair Casey McBride described how the commission got to this point. An ordinance that attempted to regulate misleading sale signs in the district passed last March, and had an overall good effect, he said, but problems developed over the summer about when “end of season” sale signs could legally appear. The HDC originally had set Labor Day as the date such signs could appear.
But according to the state Attorney General’s office, a year-round business has to wait six months, whereas a summer-only business could wait until the middle of the season to put up a sale sign, McBride said.
The ordinance came back to HDC, which set an arbitrary date of July 16 for when sale signs can appear, and defined a seasonal business as one open in fewer than four quarters of a calendar year.
Responding to administration concerns, the new ordinance also clarifies what the municipality can do when it receives a complaint about an alleged misleading sign. Its role is now meant to be a reporting agency.
McBride said that if a complaint comes in from an individual, it would then go to the permitting officer, who then would give the offending business written notice that the sign must be removed in three days, or the sign would be documented and the information forwarded to the state AG’s office.
“We don’t want to penalize businesses,” McBride said, “but we want businesses to know that they are being watched.”
Municipal Clerk Marj Harris said the new ordinance goes a long way to resolving issues administration had with the previous version, but they still have concerns about a section about signs that “falsely state the quality or source of merchandise.” She said they want to make sure that the municipality “stays out of the middle” of any dispute between the merchant and the state.
Mayor Tom Cochran said he had a problem with the ordinance coming from “outside the purview of the HDC,” saying they should be dealing with historic structures and let the chamber of commerce or a merchant organization handle the signage complaints.
But McBride said past violations have occurred in the district, and a part of their code deals with aesthetics.
Assemblywoman Colette Hisman said she supports the ordinance, because, as a former member of the HDC, commission members are constantly faced with aesthetic issues.
“When the district has the look of people doing shady things, it affects the whole district,” she said.
With some administrative questions still unresolved, Harris suggested passing the ordinance on first reading, and letting HDC work with administration before second reading on Jan. 7. This also would leave the borough attorney time to review it. The motion passed 5-0. Dan Henry was excused from the meeting due to a family matter.
HDC regulations postponed
The assembly voted 5-0 to postpone until April second reading of an ordinance that would amend the Historic District regulations regarding signage and Alaska’s Unfair Trade Practices Consumer Act.
The ordinance would allow businesses to start advertising season-ending sales on July 16.
Historic District Commission chair Casey McBride said he had not spoken with the municipal attorney yet on proposed changes to the commission’s original ordinance, nor had the commission looked at the attorney’s suggested substitute ordinance.
He said he thought a new proposal to limit sale signs to one per business was “onerous,” especially for larger businesses.
Mayor Tom Cochran said the ordinance clearly needed more committee work. It was postponed to the second meeting in April.
SCHOOL REPORT (complete report in print edition)
Board passes optional math credit for 8th grade Algebra
After about an hour of discussion, the Skagway School Board voted unanimously Jan. 26 to approve a policy that would give an optional high school math credit to eighth graders who get good grades when taking Algebra I.
A couple of parents spoke to the proposed policy, which had also been discussed at a previous meeting and work session. And after a fairly long debate at the table Tuesday night, a pair of amendments were offered. The board decided to make the credit available for students who had a grade of B or better in both class work and the final exam, and on recommendation of their teacher. But it also decided to make the credit optional. This option was made available so B students could put potentially higher grades from high school math courses on their transcripts. The policy also encourages students to take three years of math in high school. Three math credits are required to graduate.
The board made the policy retroactive to the previous school year, since the request came from parents of eighth graders who took an Algebra I class last year with ninth graders.
The board was asked if a student who did not get a B could have the option to take the class over. The option currently is not available, as those students from last year moved into geometry. Superintendent Les McCormick said the student could take Algebra I again next year.
The issue opened up a larger concern about a need to work with teachers and parents to review the math curriculum. There was a concern that Skagway should be teaching kids to a national standard, but also give more options to students who have difficulty with math.
No word yet from Dr. Dickens
Board President Chris Ellis said she would be contacting Dr. Michael Dickens to find out if he intends to return to the district. In the agreement granting his one-year leave of absence last spring, Dickens was supposed to notify the district by Jan. 15, 2010 if he intended to return to his superintendent post in July. Ellis said Dickens had still been having some health issues, and she planned to give him until the end of the month to make his decision. If Dickens decides not to return, then the board would need to post the position.
The board will meet in a special executive session on Feb. 2 for negotiations with teachers, and then a work session will be held the following evening to prepare its board goals for the coming year. Interim Superintendent McCormick will be evaluated by the board at the Feb. 23 regular meeting. – JB