April 29, 2011 • Vol. XXXIV, No. 7
Sad Scene on the Tide
Eagles feed on a dead seal discovered at the mouth of the Taiya River in Dyea.
Photo by Andrew Cremata
Marine mammal carcasses piling up
By ANDREW CREMATA
Three seals were found dead in Skagway waters over a three-week span, one of which was confirmed shot in the head. The seal body discoveries came on the heels of two sea lion deaths in February.
The seal deaths have prompted concern that someone is targeting the animals locally, and state biologists are eager to obtain more seal remains to determine the cause of death.
Howard Mallory was taking a drive on the Dyea Road in the early afternoon hours of April 7. When he noticed a gathering of a dozen eagles in one spot he stopped to watch. The eagles appeared to be feeding on a large carcass of some kind, but Mallory was unable to determine what it was.
Mallory contacted this reporter, who immediately drove to Dyea to investigate. From a distance it was obvious the dead animal was a seal. Upon closer examination, the remains appeared to be fresh, with only the face of the animal entirely eaten away by the eagles. The blood was fresh and the animal still soft to the touch.
The Skagway Police Department was immediately notified, and then the NOAA strandings hotline. NOAA returned the call in less than 30 minutes, but by that time the tide was rapidly overtaking the dead animal.
NOAA Biologist Kaili Jackson said that they would like to recover the carcass, but efforts the following morning to find it were unsuccessful.
Jackson also revealed that a seal found on March 16 at the mouth of the Skagway River had been shot in the head.
That animal had been found floating and was recovered by the Skagway
Fire Department and shipped to Juneau by air. The discovery came after two sea lion carcass discoveries in February, one adult female and one pup.
Those carcasses were also recovered, but the causes of death are still unknown. A field autopsy on the adult female sea lion revealed there had been blunt trauma to the animal, but biologists would not speculate on the cause of death.
On April 5, Reid Lawson was on the Dyea Flats with friends when he noticed a large gathering of eagles in one location. Photos taken by Lawson showed yet another seal laying upside down in one of the sloughs, with a stream of blood emanating from a small area on the head and flowing down current.
The seal in Lawson’s photographs is very light in color, predominately white, while the seal found by Mallory was far darker. Neither animal appeared go have been dead for very long.
While photographs of the seal taken by this reporter seem to reveal an unusual hole in the skull of the animal, there is no way to know how the seal met its demise.
Jackson said that it was impossible to ascertain the cause of death without a carcass, and encouraged anyone finding sea mammal remains to call the hotline at 1-877-925-7773.
Anyone finding a dead or injured seal should also call the Skagway Police Department immediately so efforts can be made to render aid or recover the carcass. Jackson also said that anyone with information about poaching of marine mammals could make an anonymous tip to state troopers at 1-800-853-1964.
Voters to decide May 10 on $9 million in bond proposals
By JEFF BRADY
A special election on May 10 will decide whether voters support the municipality going into debt by issuing municipal bonds in four capital improvement project propositions:
• Prop. 1 - $5 million for port improvements (Gateway Project).
• Prop 2 - $1 million for small boat harbor improvements
• Prop. 3 - $500,000 for public library improvements.
• Prop. 4 - $2.5 million for Main Street improvements.
The complete language of the four propositions is detailed in the legal ad on page 11, and the borough sent out a mailer last week. Each proposition will have to pass on its own, but if all four are approved, then the borough would apply to the Alaska Municipal Bond Bank for $9 million.
In an interview this week, Borough Manager Tom Smith was initially asked “why so much at one time?” Back when the ordinance was passed early this year, the bond rates were near historic lows, and they have remained “competitive,” he said.
The assembly elected to ask voters to approve bonds at a 20-year payback period. On April 27, the bond interest rate was 3.78 percent, said Deven Mitchell, director of the bond bank in the Department of Revenue.
“The Bond Bank sold bonds that amortize over 20 years this morning at an all-in-true interest cost of 3.78 percent,” Mitchell said in an email. “On $9 million that would be around $650,000 per year.”
Over 20 years, that would total $13 million in payments on a $9 million bond package.
Smith explained the bonding propositions in more detail. He first pulled out a resolution passed last year that showed projects at the top of the borough’s capital needs list. Number 1 on the priority list is the small boat harbor, number 2 is the Gateway Project, number 3 is the library expansion project, number 4 is the Main Street sidewalk replacement, and number 5 is Main Street repaving.
Smith then walked through each project:
• Prop. 1 – In essence, from the municipal side, the $5 million in the proposition would allow the borough to build an open cell dock that would provide uplands for a new ship loader, in combination with an improved and extended ore dock for a total of $15 million. The State Legislature is currently weighing $10 million in the capital budget for the dock improvements. In addition, AIDEA is seeking $65 million to invest in the ship loader and terminal structure.
The $5 million cell dock would be “our contribution of that $15 million,” he said. “It goes to the heart of all the port planning that has gone on (since 2008), and the main driver in all this is we desire to move toward a year-round economy with livable wage jobs.”
• Prop. 2 - The small boat harbor project has been a “key concern for several years,” he said. The project cost estimate of Phase 1B has about $11.5 million, and the proposition’s $1 million is just one component. The borough received $4 million from the state last year, and then the assembly appropriated $400,000 in FY2011. As a Tier 1 Harbor, Skagway is eligible for a DOT Harbor Grant of $5 million, and that funding is on hold in the Legislature as the project is third on a priority list that may only fund the top two. The bond proposition would authorize $1 million from the voters. The borough also plans in the fall to apply for $1 million from the Denali Commission.
“That gets us a little over $11.5 million,” he said. “As to the need, go down there at low tide and you will see at least some of the docks lying on the bottom of the harbor. This caused some of the docks, especially those with concrete surfaces of breaking up, and it’s also hard on all the connecting infrastructure.”
• Prop. 3 – The public library, constructed in 1978, has not had any major code improvements, including ADA upgrades. The expansion project would call for a “modest increase” of 1,300 square feet and a significant portion would be for code improvements for the whole building, he said. It has gone through an architectural review and revision for a total project estimate of $1.3 million. The borough was invited by the state library association to submit a matching construction grant for 50 percent, and the $667,000 request is also in the capital budget before the Legislature. The bond proposition would provide $500,000 from the community, and they have also asked for funds from the USDA for $170,000, and will ask the Rasmuson Foundation for $100,000.
• Prop. 4 – After talking with Public Works, Smith said Main Street’s need arises from the time it was last reconstructed in the 1980s. The subgrade was cut down too much and caused an adverse impact on water mains. “Both the road and sidewalk have been patched and are in need of replacement along with the underlying infrastructure,” he said. At this point there is no total project estimate, but with the $2.5 million they can get the preliminary engineering done and then go to the state with a request for more funding for “moving into a project in several years.”
In summary, Smith said we have some “significant projects we want to do” and the rates are competitive for going after municipal bonds at low interest rates.
The Gateway Project is the big one, accounting for the biggest chunk of the $9 million package, he noted.
“I would argue that one in particular is the one that will build our economic future for a year-round economy and sustainable employment,” he said.
Smoke vote Aug. 2
By JEFF BRADY
A petition to place Skagway’s secondhand smoke control ordinance on the ballot was certified on April 8, and the Skagway Borough Assembly has voted to set a special election for Tuesday, Aug. 2.
The ordinance, which passed the assembly unanimously in January after months of debate, was protested by Eagles bar manager Michelle Carlson, who wanted the voters to have the final say. She circulated a petition, which was turned in with 146 signatures.
In a report to the assembly meeting on April 21, Borough Clerk Emily Deach said she certified 126 of those signatures as being valid. That was more than the 98 needed to put the referendum on the ballot.
Then it was a question of when to have the referendum. A special election could be held 60 days after certification of the petition, or the issue could be held over to the next regular election in October.
Members said they wished they could just place it on the upcoming May 10 bond issue special election ballot, but that was too soon to comply with federal election laws.
Assemblyman Dan Henry first proposed June 7, the first day allowed, and Mike Korsmo suggested July 5, but ordinance sponsor Colette Hisman felt those dates were too soon.
“I’d like to wait a little longer,” Hisman said via teleconference from Arizona where she is tending to a family medical issue, “We need more time to get educational materials out to the public so they know what they are voting on.”
The special election will cost about $2,500, and there is just $2,700 for elections left in the current budget, which will be mostly used up with the May 10 vote. Dave Hunz said he wanted to investigate the costs more at the next meeting before setting a date.
Henry then amended his motion to set the date for Aug. 2, which would put the special election in the next budget cycle. It passed on a 5-1 vote with Hunz voting no.
“Regrettably, yes,” Hisman said when she cast her vote to put it on the ballot.
The referendum language will go before the assembly later. The ordinance banned smoking inside most work places. It was scheduled to be law April 20, ninety days after its passage.
HISTORY FEATURES: Skagway History Blog and Soapy's Parlor Planning
Bar Wars V: Return of the permit – the issue that will not end
By ANDREW CREMATA
The battle between local bar owners took on a new look during the past few weeks, as municipal officials grappled over issues revolving around a conditional use permit that no one on the borough assembly claimed to have ever actually seen.
Beth and Mark Smith, owners of Skagway Pizza Station, obtained the permit certificate on March 4 after the Board of Adjustment reversed a decision by the Planning and Zoning Commission denying the permit.
There was confusion by some members of the assembly, who also acted as the BOA, whether the permit covered the entire property or just the Corner Café building.
At the April 21 assembly meeting, members Mike Korsmo and Colette Hisman both stated that they thought the permit application was only for the café being turned into a bar and did not cover the entire property.
Mayor Tom Cochran said there was confusion over the nature of the permit because some on the assembly had mistakenly tied it in with the issue of a duplicate liquor license. The Smiths’ duplicate liquor license request was ultimately denied by the Alaska Alcohol Beverage Control Board.
Mayor Cochran explained that the section of pertinent code, recently discovered by Korsmo after 21 years with no enforcement, required the Pizza Station owners to obtain a conditional use permit. He said that, for this reason, he presumed the application covered the entire property.
Included in the application packet from the Smiths is an aerial view of the entire property, however, the section of the application labeled “Lots/Blocks” was left blank. Municipal permit officer David Van Horn said via telephone that all of the announcements posted publically before the hearings clearly listed Block 8, lots 7-12 as the focus of the discussion.
Even after the mayor clarified his interpretation of the permit, some at the table were still not convinced.
“That’s not true,” said Hisman about Mayor Cochran’s comments, adding that the Smiths only requested a permit for a bar.
Korsmo said he was going to review the application and if he discovered it was for only the Corner Café building, then “I’m going to have a problem.”
Assemblyman Paul Reichert said via telephone on April 25 that nothing on the Smiths’ application specified that the entire block was included in the permit application. While a highlighted aerial map depicted the entire property, all other references on the form spoke directly to the Corner Café building being converted to a bar.
Reichert said he wanted to know how the application was interpreted by Van Horn.
A phone call to Van Horn on April 25 clarified the situation. Van Horn said that the conditional use permit applied only to the building currently known as the Corner Café, even though it was known that the Smiths owned the entire block.
While the permit cites the property description as Block 8, lots 7-12, it reads that the permit is only approved to “convert restaurant into bar….” Van Horn explained that since Smith is the owner of the entire property, it is listed in its entirety on the permit, per state requirements.
He said a letter was sent to the Smiths notifying them that they would have to apply for another permit to bring the Pizza Station into compliance. Van Horn added that if the Smiths tried to use the new permit for Pizza Station operations that it would render it void.
Mark Smith said the whole process had been confusing, but that he planned to apply for a conditional use permit for the Pizza Station at a later date.
Some of the confusion apparently stemmed from the fact that no one other than the Smiths and Van Horn had actually seen the permit issued on March 4.
City Manager Tom Smith said there was still paperwork that needed to be filed with the state, but conversations with the municipal attorney confirmed that the permit was valid. Why no one had seen the permit remained in question.
Mayor Cochran said that everyone at the table should have received a copy of the permit, and Smith said one would be provided to everyone after the meeting.
Jan Wrentmore, owner of the Red Onion Saloon, tried to obtain a copy of the permit from the municipality through her attorney, but could not get confirmation that any permit had been issued, or if it had, what exactly it said.
Wrentmore’s attorney had threatened litigation against the municipality if the permit was awarded, and Mayor Cochran explained that they were hesitant to offer up the permit under those circumstances, citing a relevant section of code.
Reichert said he had requested a copy of the permit two weeks prior, and that municipal code said that permits would not be issued to those in litigation with the borough, not when litigation was merely threatened.
On the night of the assembly meeting, a copy of the permit obtained earlier in the day from the borough office by The Skagway News was passed around to assembly members.
On April 25, Wrentmore said via telephone that she still had not received a copy of the permit.
After the assembly meeting, Beth Smith said via telephone that she would have been happy to provide a copy of her permit to assembly members, but that none ever contacted her to see it.
Most other bars in Skagway will be required to obtain a conditional use permit before October. Korsmo said at the meeting that the assembly should look to see if those businesses could be grandfathered in.
Reichert said the permitting issue should be looked into at the committee level, and that if there were 10 to 12 businesses seeking a permit, then the BOA could end up hearing 10-12 appeals.
The issue was addressed at the March 3 assembly meeting after the Smiths’ appeal had been heard. At that time Korsmo, who voted in favor of granting the permit, was in favor of keeping the ordinance as written. Other members of the assembly agreed and the municipality sent letters to all pertinent bar owners notifying them they were out of compliance.
Mayor Cochran said that if one business was made to obtain the permit and other businesses were not, then “someone will cry foul.”
Beth Smith described the entire process as “frustrating.”
Luca Tronrud squats to grab an egg during the annual hunt in Skagway on Easter Sunday. See more photos of the spring season on the back page of our print edition. Andrew Cremata
Wassmans focus of loan commercial
By JEFF BRADY
A local Skagway family will be featured in a nationwide commercial for Quicken Loans in the next few weeks.
Chris and Kathy Wassman and their children Zack and Zoe were filmed at home and around Skagway earlier this month. The film crew set up about 16 shots over four days, from the family hanging out at home, to playing in the snow after landing on a glacier in a helicopter.
Chris Wassman said the crew will use about 10 shots in the 60-second commercial.
“The director said it was the best filming he had done in 17 years,” Chris said.
It all started with the family being entered in a contest.
The Wassmans had refinanced their home on the hillside twice in the past five years with Quicken Loans, and their loan officer decided to enter them in a contest for the best loan story of the year.
“We were pretty happy with them,” Chris said. “Their fees are very reasonable.”
The family was sent a video camera to make their own three-minute recording, and then sent it off for the contest. The company and producers then chose the Wassmans for the next Quicken Loans commercial.
When the crew started filming, the family members were just asked to be themselves.
“There was no script,” Chris said. “They just wanted to capture the realness.”
Things got very real when weather came down and it snowed on them on the glacier, he said. Wassman said local TEMSCO pilot Chris Maggio found a seam and got them home.
He said he was told the commercial could air in about a month.
Skagway elementary students dance and sing to Disney tunes played by music teacher Jon Baldwin and the high school band at the annual Spring Concert. JB
SCHOOL REPORT (complete report in print edition)
Financial errors fixed, nothing missing
The school board on April 26 was given a revised financial report through January and a letter from business manager Cindy O’Daniel explaining the errors in the initial report.
Posting errors were first noticed by resident Candice Wallace prior to the March meeting, and O’Daniel said in a March 30 memo that the report was run on Feb. 21 and did not include the full month through Jan. 31, accounting for missed salaries and other postings. The error was in the date range specified for printing off the report, she said, noting that all figures were accurate.
School Superintendent Jefferie Thielbar said he wrote a letter to Wallace thanking her for bringing the posting errors to the board’s attention.
“Errors happen, people make mistakes,” he said. “There was no malice and no money missing.”
The budget was briefly addressed. Resident Mavis Henricksen said she wished the board would look at a full-time art and music program, naming Betsy Albecker and Peter Herpst as former students who were products of a full-time program and who have excelled in the field as music educators. She added that a parent who had left the district this year was considering coming back, but the tipping point was music.
Thielbar said that with low enrollment the district was getting a good program from half-time teacher Jon Baldwin, and it would remain in the budget next year.
The board and staff still have no new negotiated agreement. No action was taken after an executive session.
More testing, quicker results
Thielbar spent most of his report talking about testing. The kids had just completed a week of state testing in early April under the No Child Left Behind federal mandate, but those results will not be known until August. Skagway has made Annual Yearly Progress (AYP) every year it has taken the tests with more than 80 percent proficiency, but he warned that the goal of 100 percent of students achieving AYP by 2014 may be hard for even good schools like Skagway to meet.
An in-service with teachers last week on a new Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) test went well, he said, and baseline testing will occur May 2-6.
These tests will be taken three times a year to measure how students progress through the year, and highlight areas that need attention from teachers, he said. Results are immediate as the test scores are calculated online 10 minutes after they are turned in, he said.
In the board’s only action item, they approved second reading of revised graduation credit numbers to reflect the new school schedule. Thielbar said he is working on next year’s class schedule with the student council, and most are wanting to take more math.
The board and staff still have no new negotiated agreement. No action was taken after an executive session.
Busy May ahead
With just three weeks left till school’s out, get out your calendar for these big events at the school:
• May 7 – Prom on the new zip line in Dyea
• May 9 – Kindergarten graduation, 6:30 p.m.
• May 10 – Awards Night, dinner at 6 and awards at 7 p.m.
• May 16 – Graduation, 6:30 p.m.
• May 18 – School ends at noon. – JB
Andy Beierly, Sheryl Dennis, Stan Selmer and Rev. Ryan Mandeville sing “Life’s Railway to Heaven” during the annual Blessing of the Fleet before the rotary snowplow train headed up the pass this week. JB
BOROUGH DIGEST (complete digest in print edition)
Budget introduced: school next time
The Skagway Borough Assembly passed first reading of its FY 2012 budget on April 21. The budget typically is its fattest at first reading after department heads submit their requests, and then gets whittled down in the committee process before second and third reading at the assembly table.
At $5.069 million, it is almost identical to the $5.065 million budget passed last year, but there is a $1.7 million deficit that needs to be addressed. This is usually handled through capital project cuts and sales tax account transfers.
The $1,737,799 school budget request is in the borough budget as presented, but it will be separated for passage on its own prior to a May 15 deadline agreement with the district.
Assemblyman Mike Korsmo wanted discussion at first reading to clear the air on some concerns. He asked Superintendent Jefferie Thielbar to address carry-overs from previous years. Last year’s audit of the school had shown a $393,000 carry-over.
Thielbar explained that the figure includes all fund balances at the end of a year, including non-operating capital improvement accounts and student accounts from various fund-raisers. He said the actual figure carried over in last year’s operating budget was $202,000, which is within the 10 percent allowed by the state.
“We can bring over 10 percent, and I hope it is true forever,” he said. “It’s a good way to run a business.”
Assemblyman Tim Cochran questioned why the school didn’t have a full-time music and art program if it could afford to have that much carry-over, and Dave Hunz was critical of district decisions to use the extra money in food service and special projects and wanted to know what this year’s carry-over would be.
Thielbar said he did not know how much would be left over this year.
Mayor Tom Cochran gaveled the discussion to a halt, saying he did not want to have a big public debate like last year. He urged the members to either vote for the school budget as presented or make amendments at the next meeting. He said he did not see a big hue and cry from the public to change what had been presented.
The borough budget passed first reading on a 6-0 vote. It has a proposed Service Area I mill rate of 8.0.
The next assembly meeting has been moved to May 12 because the mayor will be out of town next week. – JB
Sound barriers: Trying to come up with a noise ordinance that will work
At the April 7 assembly meeting, members of the community came out in force to speak on the subject of a proposed noise ordinance, and a resolution dealing with penalties for violations.
The ordinance was drafted by Police Chief Ray Leggett after reviewing similar laws in other locales.
Red Onion Saloon manager Liz Lavoie said the ordinance was not clear when addressing noise after 10 p.m., and made it sound like a permit would be needed if a bar were to have a band playing. She said the penalty for the fifth violation was “brutal” as it would result in the suspension of a business’s license for three days.
Lavoie suggested a “courtesy audit” be put into place upon adoption to aid businesses with compliance.
Tony Kosters, who lives across the alley from the Skagway Brewing Co., said the current draft of the ordinance was “not good enough” as it neglected to address problems with yelling and screaming.
While the ordinance did address animal noise, Kosters asked, “Why make dogs act more reasonable than humans?”
Robert Murphy said the ordinance needed a lot of work. He said his dog mushing business was near a roadway and asked how dog noise could be separated from the noise of passing traffic.
Randy Wiley, who lives across from the Brewing Co., said that not addressing noise from humans leaving a bar made the ordinance weak. He said the problem was that when patrons leaving the bar were loud that by the time the police arrived it was too late to take any action.
“It’s affecting people’s lives,” said Wiley.
Leggett said the ordinance was drafted by looking at multiple communities, but it wasn’t easy as there were few municipalities with noise ordinances.
Assemblyman Tim Cochran suggested tabling the ordinance so it would go back to the committee level for refinement. Other assembly members agreed.
Mayor Cochran said he wished that more people with an interest in the subject would attend committee meetings.
Most of those who spoke at the April 7 meeting were present for a Public Safety Committee meeting on April 25. Residents who live near bars were frustrated that the police would have to rely on weak state law regarding people noise, but most felt the new ordinance would turn down the blaring music.
Lavoie said live band music is under control, but the Red Onion struggles more with the music from iPods used by bartenders, as the songs are recorded at different levels.
Any loud noise that is continuous – measured at a high decibel for two minutes – will be in violation. Some thought two minutes was too long, but Leggett said it was worth a try.
“We can put something in place and see what it does,” he said.
Kosters said the ordinance would cut down on 95 percent of the noise they hear, but the yelling and screaming in spurts is what keeps them up at night. Wiley agreed, saying he hears arguments between guys and their girl friends that make it hard to go back to sleep.
Assemblyman Paul Reichert said he could not support a resolution that called for suspending a business license. He favored stiffer fines, and it was agreed to make that change.
Chair Tim Cochran said the ordinance was worth a try, and adding that he will offer an amended resolution that changes the penalties to a warning for first offense, $100 for second offense, $200 for third offense, $500 for fourth offense, and $1,000 for fifth and subsequent offenses.
Lavoie said that would get the bars’ attention.
Leggett said that if the ordinance and resolution pass, then he would immediately sit down with bar owners and go over the rules. – AC & JB