February 12, 2010 • Vol. XXXIII, No. 2

BELLY BOWL I

‘Sarah Savage’ and ‘Belly Bro’ bump bellies in the first round of competition. See story and more photos in our Only in Skagway Feature this issue.

Post Office down to one counter worker

Help arrives for mail sorting after 2-day shutdown

By ANDREW CREMATA

The closure of the Skagway branch of the United States Post Office for two days in the middle last week left many postal patrons dismayed over the status of their mail. The two day closure on Feb. 2-3, combined with daily closures since January from 11:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., have not only inconvenienced those doing business with the post office, but have drawn the concern of members of local government.
The recent closures were caused by the post office being short-staffed. One part time employee, Dan Cook, retired in November, and Postmaster Elaine Brummett was away from the office to assist the Haines Post Office for two weeks in January, and is currently on vacation in Hawaii. Brummett is expected back full time in the local office at the end of March, and was not available for comment on this story.
This left the only other full-time employee of the post office, Doug Breen, to work by himself during Brummett’s absence. Breen took two days of leave on Feb 2-3 to pick up his young son at the Juneau airport, a trip that was prearranged and approved beforehand by his superiors.
Even though signs were posted on the front door of the post office announcing the closure, many local residents were caught off guard when they walked into the post office that Tuesday.
Local resident Scott Mulvihill was expecting an Express Mail package on Feb. 2 for vehicle tags required to legally drive his car. Upon discovering the post office was closed, Mulvihill expressed his disappointment.
“I didn’t get my Express Mail package for six days,” said Mulvihill the following Tuesday, adding that in recent months arriving mail seems delayed and service at the local post office has been poor.
“One guy can’t address that,” said Mulvihill, stressing the employee who has been working alone at the post office was not to blame.
“The whole management of the post office has been handling things poorly the last few months,” he said.
At the Jan. 27 Skagway Borough Assembly meeting, Assemblywoman Collette Hisman said she was concerned about service at the post office because there were even fewer employees currently working at the branch office than last spring, when similar issues were addressed.
She added that one person working in the post office environment could pose a safety issue. Mayor Tom Cochran recommended a letter be drafted to postal officials in Anchorage and to the congressional delegation voicing their concerns.
On Feb. 3, Manager of Post Office Operations Darus Macy said via telephone from Anchorage that she apologized for the closure and understood Breen “needs help in there.”
Darus said the post office was not concerned about Breen working solo, as there were other employees doing the same in other offices in Alaska. She said a temporary hire would soon be working in the Skagway office.
Darus also said that all of the employees who transferred or retired would be replaced, and said it was possible Brummett could apply for the open Haines postmaster job. She explained that whenever a post office job opens, policy dictates the job be posted internally before it goes out to public hire.
Darus said she did not know what the timeline was before an internal search to fill a position expired, or if such a timeline even existed, but did say that there was one person interested in the part-time job internally. Still, it remains unclear when the Skagway branch will fill the position vacated by Cook or, if Brummett were to leave, how long it would take to find a new postmaster, considering her job would also be posted internally for an undetermined amount of time.
Darus indicated she had received a number of phone calls from Skagway residents concerned about the closures, and that their needs were being addressed. By Thursday Feb. 4, the temporary position had been filled by local resident Kati Chapman.
However, Chapman’s hiring does not mean the hour-long lunchtime closures of the front window will be addressed any time soon. A temporary hire is not qualified to work the counter, so until another employee is hired, or Brummett returns, the post office window will remain closed from 11:30 to 12:30. Chapman will be able to assist customers with package slips at either the front or back service doors during that hour.

School District calls urgent public forum
on finances

By JEFF BRADY

One topic that the Skagway School Board didn’t get to during its annual Community Forum last month was finances, and the district decided late last week to hold another forum this week.
The subject was certainly on the minds of board members during a Feb. 3 work session, as they attempted to formulate their goals for the coming year.
“I don’t think the community understands the importance of (finances), the seriousness of it,” said member Chris Maggio, “and how this school operates financially.”
Two days later, Superintendent Les McCormick was at the Skagway Borough Assembly meeting asking members to attend a separate forum presentation on school finances this Thursday, saying there was a sense of “urgency.”
“I’m building a budget on 72 students,” he told them.
This year’s budget was based on an estimate last April of 95 students, but the fall count came in at less than 90. Next year’s most hopeful estimate is 79 students, McCormick told the board in December.
Board President Chris Ellis this week said the new forum presentation on finances was suggested by their attorney “to present information to the public about where we’re at.”
The board is in the middle of negotiations with its teachers, and has held two special meetings in executive session in the past two weeks.
At the public work session, there was no talk about staff reductions. Instead members focused on ideas for boosting enrollment, from hosting foreign exchange students for getting next year’s numbers up, to working with the Skagway Development Corp. on establishing a “boarding house” for Lower 48 students who could be attracted to attend Alaska’s top-rated school. But that could be two or three years away.
“There are different ways to work on (enrollment),” said Darren Belisle. “We also have to keep the students that are here…, strive to keep that academic excellence with the teachers we have here.”
He said the recent introduction of the Virtual High School program should help high school students, giving them other courses to take. Stuart Brown also stressed the need to keep a well-rounded program with music and art.
But the enrollment problem, they said, really comes down to it being recognized as a community problem, and they suggested the borough establish a task force that can come up with the things needed to keep young families in town. Winter jobs and affordable starter housing were mentioned, and “well-rounded enriched programs in the school,” added Ellis.
Thursday night’s meeting will be covered in the Feb. 26 issue.

Dickens staying in Arizona for his health

Dr. Michael Dickens will not be returning to his position as superintendent of the Skagway School District, said School Board President Christine Ellis this week.
Ellis said she recently received an e-mail from Monica Dickens, who said her husband had forgotten about the Jan. 15 deadline for notifying the board if he would be returning July 1. The deadline was part of an agreement for a one-year leave of absence granted by the board last spring so Dickens could take care of some health issues.
The decision will become official once a letter is received, Ellis said, and it is expected shortly.
“It would have been nice if he could have come back,” Ellis said. “That’s what we hoped for. But with his medical condition, he just couldn’t.”
School staff circulated an e-mail in mid-December about Dickens going back into the hospital with a mild heart attack. In the e-mail he said he was sorry he could not thank everyone for all the birthday wishes from the kids. He has been recovering from having two stints placed in his heart, but will not be able to return.
Dickens is at his new home in Arizona and could not be reached for comment in time for this issue’s deadline.
Ellis said the board will discuss how to proceed after completing their evaluation of interim Superintendent Les McCormick at the Feb. 26 regular meeting.
Dickens was superintendent for six school years, the longest tenure of any Skagway superintendent in two decades. He actually resigned last spring after missing several weeks early in 2009 due to health issues, but was asked by the board to consider a one-year leave of absence instead.

HEW Committee recommends subscription form for medevacs

By JEFF BRADY
The municipality’s Health, Education and Welfare Committee will recommend that the Skagway Borough Assembly add a form for Apollo MT’s medevac insurance in an annual mailing to residents.
Skagway residents already receive a local ambulance subscription form annually from the Skagway Fire Department, and those who pay for a $10 individual subscription or a $25 family subscription are insured one free ambulance ride per person or family member per year. The local plan helps SFD cover its costs for people whom they are unable to collect from for ambulance services. The normal base rate for one basic life support call is $350, plus $6 per mile.
At a meeting Tuesday, HEW members said they would like to keep the local plan, but give residents the information they need to subscribe to the Apollo MT plan as well. For a cost of $100 per family, the Apollo plan covers any medevacs and associated ambulance rides within the state, and from Alaska or the Yukon/BC out to Washington hospitals. A medevac just from Skagway to Juneau now costs around $25,000 on Guardian Flight, the service used most by Dahl Memorial Clinic and Bartlett Regional Hospital.
The committee recommendation comes after a town hall meeting was held last month to discuss a proposed Skagway Medevac Fund set up through the local Eagles lodge. While there was support for the plan to contribute to a fund to cover all residents, there was a concern that the various clubs could not sustain annual donations, said committee chair Colette Hisman.
The fund has about $14,000 in pledges from various organizations so far, and the borough was asked to contribute $10,000 annually. It is estimated that $32,000 would cover all of the town’s residents each year, at a discounted rate of $90 per household. Apollo MT has offered the discounted rate, but it was unclear whether it would be extended if the borough encouraged the medevac subscriptions.
At first Hisman proposed doing away with the Skagway Fire Dept. plan, because the Apollo MT plan would also cover local ambulance rides. But committee member Dave Hunz preferred both plans so people could have the option to contribute to the fire department.
A handful of local residents at the meeting were against any kind of borough contribution, saying it should be up to individuals.
Ed Fairbanks said the Apollo subscription cost works out to $1.92 a week for an individual, saying most people can manage that.
“I don’t see it as a city responsibility,” Fairbanks said. “People have to be responsible for themselves.”
John Garland said people in town are generous and can help out, through the clubs, those who are saddled with medical expenses.
Mavis Irene Henricksen said the borough should not be liable for maintaining the list of subscribers.
This was echoed somewhat by borough treasurer Cindy O’Daniel and clerk Marj Harris. While it would not be a tremendous amount of work to maintain a list, they said the borough would not want to be responsible for billing, especially for a private company.
“What if they are on the list and don’t pay their bill?” O’Daniel said.
“Also, how do you judge who can pay and who cannot?” added Harris.
Committee member Paul Reichert said the clubs and other organizations could decide to cover its members, or pay for a certain number of memberships in the community to take care of people who come to them for help.
About 100 families in the community signed up for the Apollo MT coverage after reading about the skyrocketing costs for medevacs in the News last year. A quick poll of the 10 people in the room showed eight had the coverage and the remaining two were getting it.
Hisman said the middle ground for the assembly would be to educate the public about the medevac subscriptions. She said she will contact Apollo MT about what to put on the form.
“If we tell them we will encourage (the subscriptions), who knows, they may extend the discount,” she said.

Skagway Carvers ‘People’s Choice’

SUN SCULPTORS – Ken Graham and Bruce Schindler carve their block of snow as the sun rises over Breckenridge, Colo. on Jan. 30. After three days of carving along with Peter Lucchetti and Chris Macintosh, Team USA Alaska’s ‘The Last Iceberg’ won the People’s Choice award for the second straight year at the 2010 Budweiser International Snow Sculpture Championships. See the finished sculpture in this issue's Skagway Snow Sculpture Photo Feature. Photo by Doug Smith, Team PR Guy

BOROUGH DIGEST (complete digest in print edition)

First teleconference member: Dan Henry*
 Dan Henry became the first member of the Skagway Borough Assembly to participate via teleconference, which is now allowed under a new ordinance passed last fall.
At the Feb. 4 meeting, Henry thanked the mayor and members for being sensitive to his need to be away to take care of family issues for a good part of this winter.
However, he said being the first member to teleconference was not the way he wanted to have an asterisk by his name.
With Henry counted as present, there was a full assembly. The teleconference equipment was set up in front of the mayor, and a microphone was placed near it so Henry could be heard by the audience and recorded for the minutes.
However the mike was the same one normally used for public testimony, so those who came up had to stand by Borough Manager Tom Smith and use his mike.

Elliott: Borough investments improving
 Borough financial advisor Skip Elliott was present to give his quarterly report. He said that in the first seven months of the fiscal year, the Land Fund had a return of 7.4 percent. This is better than the goal of a 6.5 percent return for the whole year.
He said that despite being allowed to have 60 percent of the fund in stock equities, he had maintained a conservative approach with just 19 percent in the stock market. This was in anticipation of the fund possibly being drawn down if the borough tapped it for purchasing the Garden City RV Park land. That offer is still pending. He said the volatility of the past week in the stock market was similar to a year ago, but when opportunities come along they can still participate.
Elliott said that when the borough does sell the Taiya Point lots, they should put the money into the Land Fund, and “we can make it work for you.”

Land exchange, priority list, Alaska ACT
With the meeting occurring just a week after its last session, there wasn’t much else on the agenda, and the meeting lasted just 56 minutes. They discussed these issues:
• Members expressed opposition to a proposed land exchange between the state Mental Health Trust and the US Forest Service, which would take 357 acres of land north of the city along the Klondike Highway and place it in federal management. The MHT section is east of Black Lake and goes toward the railroad tracks. Mark Schaefer, who lives near the parcel said there is no benefit to the community from the exchange, despite what a brochure states. There is no old growth timber, added Dave Hunz, but there is valuable gravel in the river. A letter of objection will be drafted for the next meeting.
• Members decided to submit its legislative priorities adopted last fall. At the top of the list is the sewer treatment plant, followed by renovation of the small boat harbor, port gateway project, Main Street sidewalk replacement, public safety building, bike path to Liarsville, and Main Street repaving. Hunz said the Harbor Committee also was beginning to look at Long Bay as a location for a future auxiliary boat harbor. And the old water tower needs to be dismantled. Unfortunately, the site is too small for the new water tower the borough has in storage in Washington.
• The assembly decided not to join Alaska ACT, a new private organization that supports the cruise industry and is trying to get ships back to the state. Tourism Director Buckwheat Donahue said some of the angry rhetoric coming from the organization on its website – comparing 2006 cruise initiative proponents to Somali pirates and some digs at Skagway’s “young mayor” by member Steve Hites – were counterproductive. “I think before we support Alaska ACT, he owes us an apology,” Donahue said, adding that Skagway voted against the initiative and has consistently supported the cruise industry. He said the CVB was holding off its support of the organization. Mayor Tom Cochran said the borough should not be involved, since the cruise lines are currently suing the state over the head tax passed in the initiative. “Let the courts do their thing,” he said. There was no objection by assembly members. It was mentioned later that Skagway just received $3.9 million from last year’s head tax collections.

 

SCHOOL REPORT (complete report in print edition)

Mayo posts big DDF wins in Anchorage, Ketchikan
 Skagway junior Brandy Mayo won the state National Catholic Forensics League competition in Original Oratory at Anchorage last weekend, qualifying her for the NCFL Grand National Tournament in Omaha, Nebraska at the end of May.
Mayo won for her performance of a speech she wrote called “Plastic Island,” based on the large mass of plastic debris swelling around the Pacific, said Skagway Debate, Drama and Forensics coach Teagan Baldwin.
Skagway joined NCFL last year, and its competitions have been organized with member private and public schools since 1951. The categories are slightly different from the Alaska School Activities Association competitions. Mayo also placed third in Extemporaneous Speaking in Anchorage.
She has been on a DDF roll of late. Last month at a meet in Ketchikan, Mayo placed first in Expository Speaking. And paired with teammate Alexis Grieser, they finished fourth in Duet Acting.
The two girls are headed for Juneau this weekend. They will again perform a Duet Acting piece, and will compete individually in Extemporaneous Commentary, Baldwin said. Mayo also will compete in Expository Speaking, and Grieser will compete in Oration.
The ASAA State DDF Tournament is March 4-6 in Anchorage.