June 25, 2010 • Vol. XXXIII, No. 11
Soup's on for Chilkoot Reenactors
A videographer films a member of “La Ruēe Vers L’Or” who just returned to the Dyea camp after packing a load up the Chilkoot Trail to Finnegan’s Point. Others sample the camp stew and rest their sore feet. See story below.
Photo by Jeff Brady
More than 300 sign petition for school funding to the cap
Assembly schedules special meeting; school passes reduced budget, for now
By JEFF BRADY
A petition now numbering more than 300 signatures has been presented to the municipality in support of the Skagway Borough Assembly funding the school budget to the municipal cap allowed by state law.
In a 4-2 vote that has held over the past couple months, the assembly reduced the cap level by $151,780 – from $1.251 million to $1.1 million. But the petition, which was originally turned in at the June 17 assembly meeting with 228 signatures, is demanding the restoration of that funding.
A special meeting has been called for Monday, June 28 at 7 p.m. for introduction of a budget amendment ordinance to restore recent cuts to school funding. If it passes, second reading and a final vote would be at the regular meeting on July 1.
In the meantime, the school board has had to proceed with cutting its budget based on the reduced amount, but new Superintendent Jeff Thielbar said the board can amend its budget based on any extra funding the borough eventually gives them. “It can be treated like a grant that comes in the middle of the year,” he told the board Tuesday night.
In presenting the petition to the assembly, student Alexis Grieser read a statement from her mother, Angie, who had lost her voice. The mother and daughter team, along with other parents, had gone door-to-door collecting signatures. One was also on the front counter of the hardware store.
Grieser noted the number of signatures, 228, was much higher than the average number of votes successful assembly members received in a recent election, 165. She also said that in the gathering of the petition, less than 10 people said they would not support it.
“So, of the people I spoke with, more than 90 percent were for the funding,” she said. “I know you have a history with the school board and I’m sure there are some changes that need to be made. I don’t pretend to know all of the facts or understand the whole school budget process. I do know that 228 people in this town do not agree with your solution to the problem.”
She added that the new superintendent had told the assembly that the cuts would hurt the education of kids in Skagway, but that the municipality has the money to prevent that from happening, including a sales tax surplus of more than $200,000. She urged them to use that money to “invest in the kids and Skagway’s future.
“Two hundred twenty-eight people are asking you to represent them and please reassess your decision. Let the new superintendent form his panel and come up with a fiscally responsible budget you can all agree on, but fund the school to the cap in the meantime.”
A small crowd at the meeting then applauded the student as she got up from the table.
Assembly members were given a new ledger sheet of all its accounts for the meeting, and it showed they had more than $18 million in various funds. Later in the meeting, finance chair Dan Henry, who has held all along that the borough has the money to fund what the school needs, said they had to do something to respond to the petition. He tried to get members Dave Hunz and Tim Cochran to says how they arrived at the $15,000 average cost per student that they based the cut on, and what new number they would be comfortable with, but then alleged that their previous votes were based on “unacceptable math” and must have been for some other reason.
Cochran said if all the grants were factored in, then the cost per student would be close to $30,000 per student. He said reducing the budget for lower student numbers was not unlike White Pass having to lay off 12 workers this season because of lower tourist numbers. But Henry said the municipality is not like White Pass or any other community dealing with its schools.
He said he would introduce an ordinance at a special meeting that would restore the funding to the cap. When asked by member Colette Hisman if he was suggesting that they look at reducing the so-called extra funding account, Henry said he would submit restoration of all those funds as well. The discussion ended there.
During a special meeting on Tuesday to hire the new municipal clerk, Henry asked initially that they hold a special meeting this Friday to deal with the budget ordinance, but others at the table wanted it to be on Monday, and it was scheduled.
In an interview, Henry said that he wanted to get the budget amendment passed as soon as possible so the school would have a solid number to submit to the state by a July 15 deadline. He said the community’s desire was clear from the 300 signatures on the petition.
“In the face of that, how can you possibly vote against that,” he said.
At Tuesday night’s school board meeting, which was held after the assembly’s meeting, members were informed by Grieser and Cochran about the upcoming meeting on Monday.
Thielbar was asked by parent Dan Cook if they could alter the proposed new class schedule if the petition is successful in restoring funding. The superintendent responded that, for the moment, they had to proceed with the budget based on the funds that had been given them by the borough. And that any change would have to be made by the board later.
The new $1.453 million budget contained no funds for pre-school or music, and had moved elementary teacher Vivian Meyer into the high school wing to teach technology, Spanish and administer the Virtual High School offerings.
Because of the reduced amount, only science teacher Cory Thole was retained among the non-tenured teaching staff. Tech teacher Andy Zalit and music teacher Jon Baldwin have not been hired back as part of a reduction in force. All three had received RIF notices on the last day of school, and Board President Chris Ellis apologized to Thole for how that came about.
Thielbar said he had met with pre-school parents and praised their efforts to step forward and raise funds for that program. Cans are in businesses all over town. Denise Sager said she is one parent who would help pay a teacher if the funds are not restored.
However, the matter at hand was passing the new $1.453 million budget on the table with staff reductions and the zeroed out pre-school and music line items. It also included six more students – confirmed foreign exchange students – to boost enrollment from 72 to 78. Thielbar said the schedule was still evolving and needed more input from teachers. He and the board also welcomed students and parents to come in and tell them what their needs are.
School business services manager Kathy Pierce was thanked for her work on the budget and its various drafts, 14 in all. She said later that a normal year would see three drafts. The board passed it unanimously.
Later, Thielbar said his priorities, if funding were restored, would be pre-school and then music.
Thielbar will not be at Monday’s meeting as he is leaving this weekend to go pack up his belongings in Wyoming, but he may write a letter to the assembly before he leaves. He added that the July 15 deadline for the state is for a figure only, and budget changes can be submitted throughout the year.
“If we get more, then we can treat it like a grant we would receive in the middle of the year,” he said.
Several jokes were made about whether they could then afford toilet paper.
“It’s been a long year and a few laughs are in order,” Ellis said.
UPDATE: The assembly passed first reading of the budget amendment on June 28, with Mayor Cochran breaking a 3-3 tie to fund the school to the cap. It also included a reduction of the so-called extra funding items to $250,000. Second reading will be on July 15.
Auction a dud: No bidders for Dyea Point lots
By JEFF BRADY
A few residents trickled into the assembly chambers just before 7 p.m. last Friday night, hoping to witness an historic land auction.
But as it turned out, none of them were there to bid on the new Dyea Point lots. In fact, no one had filed the $100 registration fee required to bid, said Borough Clerk Marj Harris, as the clock ticked down.
“No one can bid unless they come forward in the next 40 seconds,” said Finance Committee chair and auctioneer Dan Henry.
When no one came forward, he banged the proceedings to a close.
“We’re done,” Henry said. “But I was ready.”
About 10 people were present, but only one, Niki Bunting, said she was interested in a lot.
As it turned out, with such little interest, anyone could have saved the $100 fee and gone into City Hall the following Monday and bought the lot of their choice over the counter. To date, though, no one has come in and bought any of the lots that were up for auction.
Eight parcels ranging in value from $91,300 to $127,400 will remain available for sale at those prices for a year, Harris said. But the land sale ordinance says the lots can be available for up to five years. The lots range in size from 2.024 to 5.05 acres.
One Dyea Point lot is in the process of being sold, but it was not on the auction list. Adjacent property owners Bruce Weber and Cara Cosgrove have agreed to purchase a ninth lot for which they had right of first refusal as part of a land trade deal that allowed the building of Nahku Road through part of their property.
The couple this spring appealed the original $97,800 valuation of the lot, saying its per-acre value was much higher than the other properties. The value was subsequently reduced by 20 percent, taking into account its lack of waterfront, size and development issues, and the previously negotiated value of the lands that were traded, noted appraiser Timothy Riley of Horan & Co. in a May 19 letter. The new valuation and selling price was $78,240.
The Dyea Point lot values have been widely criticized around the community as being too high.
Reached this week, borough assessor Charles Horan of Sitka said there could be a number of reasons for the lack of bidders on the lots.
“We were surprised too because we heard there was a significant amount of interest in them,” he said. “I think the primary reason is the cautious marketplace.”
Horan noted the valuations were based on previous sales of hillside property, and for the moment there is no evidence to change those amounts. Unlike downtown lots which have dropped in value by 10 percent, there has not been evidence of a similar drop on the hillside.
He acknowledge that the market has softened, suspecting that people are “pulling their belts in and taking a ‘wait and see’ approach which usually results in a lag time in the market.”
Horan said it was wise for the municipality to put the lots for sale over the counter, saying that maybe after the summer season there would be some takers. If there are none, then they could be asked to come in and look at them again.
Railroad, borough sign MOU to boost port
Goal is year-round railroad to Whitehorse
By JEFF BRADY
The Municipality of Skagway and White Pass, through company affiliate Pacific & Arctic Railway & Navigation Co, have signed a Memorandum of Understanding for “Future Use, Creation of a Visionary Port, and Sustainability Agreement.”
The MOU, which had been in discussion over the past six months, landed on the desk of new WP&YR President Eugene Hretzay recently, and after a couple of visits from Mayor Tom Cochran and Borough Manager Tom Smith, a final draft was hammered out and presented for approval by the Skagway Borough Assembly on June 17.
The agreement outlines responsibilities for both the municipality and the railroad/port operator which has a large tidelands lease from the borough until 2023. Port “sustainability” is the common thread used throughout the document.
The municipality’s responsibilities include pursuing economic development ideas, funding sources, holding public meetings, and lobbying various government agencies in the U.S. and Canada for support.
PARN’s responsibilities include contributing to the planning vision, keeping an open line of communication with the borough, maintaining leased property and improvements in accordance with the lease, assisting in efforts to enlist community support, and pursuing both the goals of operating the WP&YR on a year-round basis “if revenue streams justify expenses and the board of its parent approves” and “extending rail service to Whitehorse, Yukon if market conditions ensure profitability….”
Both parties agree that tourism and year-round port commerce are “needed and desired” and that they will identify all stakeholders and responsible parties during planning stages. Finally, both parties agree that “it is to our mutual benefit to negotiate the lease of the said tidelands beyond 2023.”
The agreement is for three years, but either party may opt out of it with 30 days notice.
“I think it is a good step,” said Mayor Cochran. “There is new management and he (Hretzay) will be their liaison on the Port Commission…. It’s definitely worth pursuing things with White Pass that are in line with our initiatives.”
Hretzay and White Pass Vice President Michael Brandt have attended recent Port Commission meetings to discuss the company’s involvement. At the June 17 assembly meeting an ordinance was introduced adding Hretzay as a non-voting liaison, similar to a seat on the Port Commission held by a member of the Yukon Government.
In an interview this week, Hretzay said they “turned around the MOU in two hours” and he is excited about working with the municipality.
“It’s a win-win situation for both the borough and ourselves,” he said, noting that there will be meetings in Skagway with the deputy premier of the Yukon on Friday.
The Port Commission is meeting at 4 p.m. at City Hall.
Hretzay added that the goal of “running the railroad 365 days a year… is an exciting possibility for our shareholders,” but he added that they would want to develop the port in such a way as to “not to diminish our tour capacity.”
Another item on the agenda, a revised federal TIGER grant application, has a goal of extending the ore dock and revamping the ore ship loader so the dock can handle both larger cruise ships and an ore vessel at the same time. The application will be scaled down from last year’s whopping multi-project $80 million pricetag to a $20 million expansion project that must have a 20 percent borough match. The Port Commission is also seeking a buy-in from the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (owners of the ore terminal) and the Yukon. The application deadline is July 16.
Hretzay said the prospects of Selwyn and other Yukon mines present a “unique opportunity” of getting ore to markets through “Skagway versus a Canadian port.”
He said he is looking forward to meeting with the Yukon representatives, adding that they have spent millions developing the Campbell Highway in recent years, and now it’s time for looking at the “significant cost advantage” of the Skagway route.
Catherine Provost and Caroline Gourd pass the film crew on the way back to Dyea to pick up another load. JB
Reality TV show re-creates Klondike Gold Rush
French team of 10 heading over Chilkoot pass, down river
By KATIE EMMETS
Hikers who see people reminiscent of the late 1800s on the Chilkoot Trail this summer are not hallucinating from the grueling trek up Saintly Hill.
Until mid-August, a team of 10 is re-creating the Klondike Gold Rush journey from Dyea to Dawson City, Yukon complete with period clothes, 5,000 pounds of gear, and a wooden boat.
The only modern difference between this team and the prospectors from over a century ago is the TV film crew that is following their every move.
“La Ruēe Vers L’or,” The Gold Rush, is a reality TV show that will air on the Canadian channel TVA during the coming 2010-2011 season. Filmed solely in French, each of the eight hour-long episodes will include both real adventures of the participants and their individual commentary.
The cast started hiking the trail on June 5, and with 75 allotted shooting days, they will reach their destination in August.
The re-creation wouldn’t be complete without performing the task that sparked their journey in the first place.
“They are going all the way to Dawson City and panning for gold,” said producer Alain Dondo.
Everything is historically correct from the prospector tents to not having toilet paper, he said
For food, they cook in antique pots over a fire, and their diet, made up of a lot of beans, corned beef and flour, come in authentic tin cans.
Although uncomfortable, the participants wear old-fashioned clothes and canvas boots. The boots have made hiking painful for some of the team, by providing large painful blisters and calluses.
After receiving 1,200 applicants, the contestants were narrowed down to ten.
With six men and four women, each participant was selected based on talent compatibility.
“We put together a team that has the most useful skills as a whole so the participants will benefit from each other on their journey,” said director Martin Cadotte.
Within the cast, there are three engineers, one longshoreman, two marketing specialists, one firefighter/EMT, and a nurse.
The youngest of the group is 22-year-old student Mario Smith, and the oldest participant is ski coach Louise Fournier, 51.
Chantale Germain, 42, climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in 2009, runs triathlons and has a husband and two children whom she will not speak to for three months, with the exception of hand-written letters.
“I knew it was going to be difficult and demanding,” Germain said. “But when you feel something, you have to do it. Life can be very short.”
The contestants thought their journey might contain adventure of some sort, but were not told any specific details, she said.
They took a train across Canada and then boarded a cruise ship to Alaska. It wasn’t until the day before arriving in Skagway that they were given their period clothes and told they would be re-creating the gold rush.
It involved walking through bustling Skagway and on to Dyea, and then setting up a pioneer camp, where they started lugging their gear over the trail to another camp at Finnegan’s Point.
“This is going to be a big challenge, but we can accept no help,” Germain said, upon returning to Dyea after a morning hike up the trail and back.
Of the 5,000 lbs the team needs to transport, Germain said she is responsible for carrying between 50 to 60 pounds per trip she makes further along the trail.
Along for the journey as a consultant for the show is a man who single handedly re-created the Klondike Gold Rush journey in 2006.
Billy Rioux said before he made the journey, he studied the trail’s history for six months.
In order to be completely authentic, Rioux went to thrift stores to find clothes, made his own clothes, and even constructed a raft out of logs that he used to float down the Yukon River.
“I almost killed myself several times because the log jams are very dangerous,” he said.
Like Rioux, the show participants have made their own device to go down the river – a wooden boat.
The crew tested the boat on the Taiya River the day before filming started and it floated. Taking it through the treacherous Five Finger Rapids of the Yukon River, however, is a different story and it will be determined if they will continue through them when they reach that point.
Because he was doing it by himself, the quest only took Rioux about a month and a half.
“I went all the way to Dawson City and found gold,” he said. “There are still some specks left if you pan for it.”
UPDATE: The prospectors this week had made it over the summit and were moving their gear to a camp at Deep Creek and on to Lindeman. They are about a week behind schedule. There have been some mishaps. A few became ill after eating some poisonous plants, and a couple were sent by the RCMP back to Skagway for more supplies after not having all the required gear. Watch for update in the July 9 issue.
Captions: Martin Bright and a partner are filmed lashing gear to a makeshift sled, and Hugues Gagnon sits in the sun to enjoy his rice stew. - Jeff Brady
Rasmuson Health Center open house and dedication Sat.
The Municipality of Skagway and Dahl Memorial Clinic Board invite the community to attend the dedication of the new E.A. and Jenny Rasmuson Community Health Center during an open house on Saturday, June 26 from 2 to 5 p.m.
The new facility, located on 14th Avenue between Broadway and State, will be open for tours.
The event will begin with a blessing by the Skagway Traditional Council. Speakers will include former mayor Tim Bourcy, former borough manager Alan Sorum, current Mayor Tom Cochran, and representatives of the Denali Commission and the Rasmuson Foundation.
The new facility started taking patients in late March, and its dedication was held over to June so members of the various funding agencies could attend.
The event will include live music and food, and the community is invited to “come celebrate with us and tour the clinic.”
BOROUGH DIGEST (complete digest in print edition)
Assembly chooses Blaine for clerk
During a half hour special meeting on Tuesday night, the Skagway Borough Assembly voted to hire Heidi Blaine of Eugene, Oregon as the new municipal clerk.
Ultimately, the choice came down to Blaine and current borough accounts payable/accounts receivable clerk Emily Deach. Assemblyman Tim Cochran reminded the table that Deach has applied for the permitting official position, so Skagway would not be losing her if she wasn’t chosen for clerk.
Blaine recently received a Masters in Public Administration from the University of Oregon and has a few years experience as a city clerk, said current borough clerk Marj Harris.
Harris was scheduled to retire on June 30, but has agreed to stay on for an additional month to train Blaine, who said she can start as early as July 5.
The assembly conducted interviews with Blaine, Deach and two other finalists on Monday.
UPDATE: Blaine declined the job, and Deach was hired by the assembly on June 28.
New Dyea Flats plan approved with changes
After 13 amendments to the ordinance, the Dyea Flats Management Plan was adopted at the June 17 meeting.
The plan, which was created by the Dyea Advisory Board with input from the National Park Service and Planning and Zoning Commission, includes revisions and additions to the original plan that was constructed in 1996.
The reasons for the land management plan are to provide background information for the flats; define the municipality’s goals for management; list uses and activities that are allowed, prohibited and under what conditions; management implementation actions by the assembly and to create a list of funding that may be available.
The third amendment to the plan was one that everyone in the assembly chambers was particularly happy about.
With the passing of the ordinance, volleyball, rabbit and squirrel hunting, and town parties with a live band will be allowed on the flats.
The assembly was stuck on whether to designate the flats an Area Meriting Special Attention in the future. The mayor broke a deadlocked assembly twice to take the AMSA language out.
Public disclosure vote off October ballot
Proposed ordinance 10-10, which would have asked voters on the October ballot to exempt municipal officers from publicly disclosing financial information, did not pass its first reading.
At the request of a Planning and Zoning Commission member who disagrees with having to divulge personal information, Assemblyman Tim Cochran brought it to the table. But Cochran said he doesn’t agree with it.
“If you serve on a public forum, such as this, you need to be forthright,” he said. “I initiated it, but I don’t support it.”
In public testimony, former mayor Tim Bourcy, who also disagreed with the proposed ordinance, added that there should be a way to check for conflicts of interest that someone who is serving on a committee might have.
The assembly defeated the ordinance on first reading by a 6-0 vote. It had earlier passed in resolution form, but a formal ordinance was needed to get it on the October ballot.– KATIE EMMETS