August 14, 2009 • Vol. XXXII, No. 14
Poaching Fish at Pullen
A man illegally grabs a pink salmon from Pullen Pond on August 10. Alaska Department of Fish and Game liberalized fishing in Pullen Creek after a successful return of kings, but snagging and grabbing are not allowed. Andrew Cremata
Economic summit focuses on bringing cruise ships back to Alaska
By MOLLY DISCHNER
At a recent gathering in Juneau, Skagwegians joined others from Southeast to discuss the future of tourism in Alaska.
Three cruise lines have announced that they’re pulling ships out of Alaska next summer, and industry representatives have cautioned that more might follow.
Local businessman Steve Hites said the discussion at the July 24 summit included a number of ways to combat that trend.
“I believe that we came up with a good working list of options and alternatives to move forward,” he said.
Organizer PeggyAnn McConnochie, executive director of First Things First Alaska Foundation, said participants concluded that the 2006 cruise initiative needed to be changed, but didn’t reach a consensus on how to change it.
“Everyone felt there needed to be more research to decide exactly how one goes about to change the initiative,” McConnochie said. That initiative instigated the $50 tax per passenger and made environmental regulations more strict.
Legal action was one of the possibilities discussed. McConnochie said there were people at the meeting who felt that a recent Valdez decision makes the head tax unconstitutional. In that case, the state supreme court ruled that a tax on oil tankers was unconstitutional. According to that decision, she said, the person who is charged the head tax must see a definite benefit from having the head tax.
A new initiative, repealing or altering the old one, was another possibility, she said.
McConnochie said education was also part of the solution. Lawmakers and the public need to be know that “tourism is another leg to the stool of the economy in Alaska,” she said.
Assemblyman and business owner Dennis Corrington, who attended the event with his wife Nancy, said at last week’s assembly meeting that it was “eye-opening.”
In addition to the discussion, the afternoon included speeches by each of eight panelists.
Hites was one of the speakers. He talked about his other business, a railroad on the Caribbean island of St. Kitts, and the process the tourism industry and government went through to attract cruise ships to that island.
Corrington and Mayor Tom Cochran both said that Hites’ speech was well received and earned him a standing ovation.
Hites said the summit itself was a step towards finding a solution. The number of people who took the time to attend the event gave him a feeling of optimism, he said. “The economic summit energized a lot of us in Southeast Alaska in the tourism business.”.
More than 200 people were at the event. Cochran said the attendees were mostly individuals in the tourism industry and elected officials. McConnochie noted that those in the industry included a variety of professions such as bankers, art gallery owners, and restauranteers – not just individuals selling land tours.
Two more summits are scheduled for elsewhere in the state. The Anchorage Convention and Visitors Bureau is hosting a meeting August 20, and the Fairbanks CVB is holding one later in the month.
At last week’s assembly meeting, assemblyman Mike Korsmo said he will be attending the Anchorage meeting. He said that he will take a draft resolution on the initiative from the assembly’s August 18 work session. That resolution was drafted by CVB director Buckwheat Donahue after a meeting with cruise officials in Skagway last month. The assembly wanted to discuss it further. The work session is next Tuesday at 6 p.m.
Pricey flights out: Doubling up on medevac passengers doesn’t lower Guardian Flight’s price
By MOLLY DISCHNER
Skagway’s police blotter is full of medevacs, but high demand does not mean the flights are cheap. Recent medevacs have cost about $25,000 – and that is the low end for a flight.
Reed McCluskey said the cost of his son John’s medevac last month was shocking. He knew it would be expensive, due to the plane’s down time, the cost of training, and expensive equipment, but still wasn’t prepared for the bill he received.
“I fully expected it to be thousands,” he said. “I did not expect it to be tens of thousands.”
The bill – for a July 4 medevac in a shared plane – was just under $25,000. John had a fractured leg, which was taken care of at the clinic, so the bulk of the bill was for the flight (between $17,000 and $18,000), and an item called “air.” A third item called “Als medical supplies” amounted to $450 of the bill.
The other patient onboard, Viola Gazzara, received a bill for $25,315 with the same three line items.
In addition to a pilot, an EMT is onboard to provide medical care during the flight. In some cases, a spouse, partner, or parent is allowed to fly with the patient.
Clinic Administrator Shelly Moss said that is the low-end for a medevac. Patients needing more medical care onboard or going to Anchorage or Seattle rather than Juneau have a more expensive bill.
But no one needs to pay full price. Moss said an insurance plan offered by Apollo Medi-Trans can save people from paying for their own medevacs.
Shannon Pollock, a Guardian Flight spokesman, said he couldn’t provide an estimate of the typical cost for Skagway or other communities because it was “proprietary information.” But he said the company billed all insurance types and worked with the uninsured to lower the cost. In a recent review of 190 accounts, the average out of pocket cost was in the hundreds of dollars, he said.
Although McCluskey saw the bill, he won’t be responsible for paying it. His wife’s insurance will pay for part of the cost, and medevac insurance will cover the rest.
Gazzara doesn’t have insurance to pick up the cost. Her partner Charles Stearns said they received a letter from Guardian Flight with the name of a customer service representative to help them figure out payment. But Stearns thought it would probably take quite a bit of paperwork to get it figured out. Until then, the bill stands as is.
McCluskey said the high cost was shocking. He also said that as the only medevac provider in town, Guardian Flight, effectively has a monopoly.
The fact that his son and Gazzara shared a plane and still had to pay the full price also seemed wrong, he said. Stearns questioned whether three patients sharing a plane would also be asked to pay $25,000 each.
McCluskey said that not only are a lot of people in town intensely interested, they’re seriously affected by the cost of medevacs.
Both McCluskey and Stearns said it was important that everyone in town buy the Apollo Medi-Trans insurance.
Apollo has two policies. Each is good for one household for one year, as many times as they need to be transported. The $75 plan pays for the air-ambulance. The $100 plan covers ground transportation, as well as air transportation.
Bobby Bonestroo, a spokesman for Apollo MT, said there is no cap on the number of medevacs a family can use in a year. As long as a health care provider says they are medically necessary, Apollo will pay for the cost.
Apollo does bill other insurance providers before paying the remainder of the cost, but doesn’t charge a different rate if someone is uninsured.
Moss said that the once-a-year fee was a much better deal than paying for a medevac when it happens. She also mentioned that an unborn baby can be listed on the insurance plan, with a name added once he or she is born.
McCluskey said his medevac insurance (through Guardian Air Care, which was sold and turned into Apollo this year) expired July 22.
“Coincidentally, I got their notice just days after the accident, and you better believe that I sent them a check,” he said.
To register for either of Apollo’s insurance plans, call 1-888-457-1711 or go to their website, www.apollomt.com. Brochures are also available at the Dahl Memorial Clinic.
Port committee making headway with draft ordinance, federal grant application
By JEFF BRADY
The municipality’s new Port Governance Committee met with consultant Jim Van Altvorst this week to edit a draft ordinance that will set up a structure for the body to operate as a full-fledged Skagway Port Commission which will oversee all future port operations.
Van Altvorst of Ketchikan was hired by the Skagway Borough Assembly earlier this summer because of his experience in setting up similar commissions or authorities around the state. Over a series of meetings last month, he boiled down a number of ordinances from other port cities into something simple that could work for Skagway. The biggest directive from the mayor, assembly, and committee members was that an autonomous port authority was not needed here, but rather a commission that worked under the assembly.
The first page of the draft ordinance conveys how important the job of the commission will be, as it begins implementation of the 2008 Skagway Port Development Plan. In addition to marine port issues, the committee also will be involved in the “development of an efficient and effective transportation network serving Skagway, the Skagway area, and Canada’s Yukon Territory and British Columbia.”
There was a suggestion to change the name to something broader, like Skagway Port and Transportation Commission, but those present felt “Port” covered it all. Under the new draft ordinance, the current Port and Harbor Advisory Board would act in an advisory capacity to the Port Commission, rather than the assembly, and would deal mainly with Small Boat Harbor issues.
“This keeps it simple and keeps the governance in place,” remarked Mayor Tom Cochran.
Committee chair John Tronrud agreed, adding that as a member of the P&H committee, they never reached beyond the wave barrier harbor project or the municipal side of the ferry dock.
The P&H committee has been asked for input as well, and the public will have a chance to look at the draft ordinance at an open house from 5-7 p.m. on Thursday, Aug. 20 at City Hall. First reading of the ordinance is expected at that evening’s assembly meeting. The committee also will present its federal TIGER grant application for the Gateway Project, a series of improvements to the ore dock and terminal, as well as an intermodal barge facility that could eventually utilize rail.
Much of the discussion during the Aug. 10 committee meeting centered on the make-up of the commission. As drafted, it would have required its five members to be registered voters in Skagway. But there was some support for opening it up. The previous ad-hoc Port Steering Committee that had worked on the 2008 plan had included representation from the Yukon Territorial Government and the Alaska Industrial and Export Authority. It also was suggested that White Pass, as the owner of most port facilities, should have a seat, especially if they are being asked to contribute to the Gateway Project.
But member Gary Hanson at this point said the committee was “getting off track” from its role as a government board for the municipality, and questioned whether allowing private stakeholders was even legal.
“If White Pass is allowed, why not Petro Marine?” he said, urging some public-private separation. “It would be like Princess having a seat on Buckwheat’s (CVB) board.”
At this point member Steve Hites said he had only made the stakeholder suggestion as it related to federal TIGER grant participation. Hanson said contracts with stakeholders who invest in the port could allow some participation on an advisory level.
Cochran said Hanson brought up several good points, and suggested that the commission keep its focus as a government overseer. He suggested that it could be expanded to seven members with YTG having a seat, and possibly AIDEA.
The Gateway Project idea is making the rounds. Hites and borough consultant Paul Taylor met with YTG officials in Whitehorse recently, and the mayor and a delegation were in Anchorage at press time meeting with AIDEA’s staff and board, as well as new Governor Sean Parnell.
At the start of the meeting Taylor said he had resigned from the commission so there would be no conflict with his work for the borough (see separate story). But he said he would continue to assist the commission as a volunteer.
In a progress report on the TIGER grant, Taylor said an ideal scenario would be having multiple parties kick in amounts ranging from $7 million to $29 million that would add up to the $77 million cost of the Gateway Project. He did caution that the scope of the project did not need to be as broad as initially proposed. With the Yukon’s new Wolverine mine recently downgrading from 330,000 tons a year to just 60,000 tons a year, the demand was not there for a big facility that might support standard gauge rail. He said the YTG representatives wanted the focus to stay with trucking, for the time being. Taylor said he agreed that the Gateway Project could be better proposed and developed in incremental stages.
Mines come and mines go….” Taylor said. “Make it so the rail can be an add-on later.”
Michael Brandt, a White Pass & Yukon Route’s vice president of marketing and planning attended Monday’s meeting, and said “big picture scenarios are always a good thing, but you need to be able to respond to opportunities as they become available.”
He added that, for White Pass, it would be “a quantum leap to go from this (grant application) to a stakeholder.”
Tronrud suggested a change in the application’s main focus: “It’s almost written from the point of view of ‘If we build it they will come,’ and it should be ‘If we build it, more will come.’”
The application will be tweaked after AIDEA lets the committee know the possible extent of its involvement, then it will be ready to present to the public on Aug. 20. Another presentation will be made Aug. 21 at the Skagway Chamber of Commerce’s annual meeting at noon at the Westmark.
Taylor resigns from Port Committee, continues work on Gateway Project
Pacific Contract Company, the firm contracted to do engineering work for Skagway, terminated its agreement with the municipality last week.
Mayor Tom Cochran said PCC, not the municipality, had terminated the agreement.
PCC is continuing to work on the Gateway Project (TIGER) grant and other port work for the municipality, Cochran said.
PCC owner Paul Taylor said that the issue that caused him to prepare the letter of resignation had been resolved, and he was continuing to provide services to finish the work he was engaged in. He has been involved in managing a number of recent Skagway projects, which resulted in fees for his firm. The amount of those fees had been questioned at a recent assembly meeting, but after meetings with Taylor, the borough paid them.
Taylor also resigned from the Port Governance Committee.
“I am no longer a member of the Port Governance committee, but I still have close interaction with them with the preparation of the Gateway grant and related work,” he said.
Because he was paid for his services, Taylor said he could see where there might be a question with him also serving on the committee.
“I had discussed with both Tom Smith and Tom Cochran (and) I can see where there’s a question,” he said.
Both Taylor and Cochran said they could see the municipality working with PCC again in the future.
At the Skagway Borough Assembly meeting last week, Cochran said that in the future, he’d like to see the municipality contract with PCC on a project-by-project basis.
Taylor said he had a history with the municipality, and would continue working with them.
“My family engineering business has always enjoyed an excellent working relationship with the municipality and especially the staff at Municipal Hall,” he said. “I think there’s an exciting future ahead for Skagway, and I look forward to the opportunity to continue being involved.” – MD
Winter hours at Skagway border shortened
By MOLLY DISCHNER
Travelers on the Klondike Highway won’t be able to enter into the United States at any time of night this winter.
The United States Customs and Border Protection announced August 7 that the Skagway Port of Entry will have reduced hours this winter. The winter hours at the border station will be 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Alaska Time.
Winter hours start November 1. On April 1, the port is scheduled to return to 24-hour operation for the summer.
Travelers visiting Skagway (or Skagwegians returning from a road trip) this winter will need to plan to get into town before the border closes. For those coming from Anchorage or Fairbanks, that will mean an earlier start to make the drive in one day.
Port Director Boyd Worley said the change would give the Canadian and American borders the same hours. The Canadian Border Services station in Fraser, British Columbia, is open from 8 a.m. to midnight, Pacific Standard Time, the equivalent of Skagway’s 7 to 11 schedule.
USCBP Alaska Chief Jerry McGee said that the reduced hours will not change employment at the border because the station is currently understaffed.
SCHOOL REPORT (complete report in print edition)
Interim superintendent on the job
Interim Skagway School Superintendent Les McCormick is transitioning into his new job – a turn-key situation that also involved moving into his predecessor’s apartment.
McCormick was hired near the end of the school year after the Skagway School Board allowed Dr. Michael Dickens to take a one-year leave of absence to address some health needs. McCormick and Dickens met here in early July to go over the transition, and the interim superintendent was able to secure the same housing.
“I got Michael’s spare key and bought his furniture,” McCormick said in a interview this week. “It was literally turn-key. There were still groceries and utensils in place.”
McCormick returned with his wife, Laura, during the third week of July and settled right into the job.
He is not new to Alaska. He has previously served in Ketchikan, but has also had jobs in Washington, Nevada, Idaho, Oregon, and most recently, Montana. His “Yippee-i-oh-ti-ay” ring tone on his cell phone is a give-away of his last stop.
McCormick said the Skagway position interested him, and he applied after talking to Dickens about it.
“(The one year appointment) was a way to come back into the state and continue doing good work that has been started here,” McCormick said. “Skagway has a very good reputation.”
He has already met a lot of people associated with the school, even though the halls are dark, and he is anxious for the school year to begin.
“I’m real excited about it,” he said. “it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
McCormick will have his first school board meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 18, and will have staff in-service days next week as well. The first day of school for students is on Monday, Aug. 24. – JB
BOROUGH DIGEST (complete digest in print edition)
Go-ahead given for clinic purchases, maintenance on hold
The assembly voted unanimously to allow Clinic Administrator Shelly Moss to purchase dental supplies immediately, and other clinic supplies over the next month or so. While the assembly gave Moss the go-ahead on the dental purchase, their motion for the other clinic supplies asked for some oversight.
The clinic supplies will cost about $1 million, with $287,000 of that amount coming from a grant. The assembly asked that the Clinic and Assembly Finance Committees meet with Moss weekly to go over her purchases. Assemblyman Dave Hunz said he wanted the assembly to have some sort of oversight on what was being spent.
“Just to give a blank check, I can’t go along with,” Hunz said.
Assemblyman Mike Korsmo agreed. “I trust these guys, it’s just a two-eye thing,” he said.
Moss also presented a request to the assembly for someone to do maintenance at the clinic, with a note from Public Works Director Grant Lawson supporting that need.
Mayor Tom Cochran suggested that the municipality put together a comprehensive building maintenance program rather than do maintenance on a building-by-building basis. The manager suggested having the Public Works Committee look at it, and assemblyman Dave Hunz agreed to work with public works to go through each building and see what maintenance was needed.
Cochran also received no objection to a proclamation naming August 10 to 16 “Health Center Week.”
Cruise resolution, other ssues tabled for later work session
The assembly tabled two issues and scheduled a work session to discuss them at 6 p.m. on August 18.
A resolution to eliminate the state’s cruise passenger head tax was well-received by assembly members, but after a lengthy discussion, the assembly decided they wanted to be more specific and address other areas of the 2006 Cruise Ship Initiative as well. The assembly was divided on whether or not the $50 head tax was the biggest problem, but all wanted the resolution to be more comprehensive.
The assembly also decided to discuss property tax service areas at a later date. After a July work session on the issue, Borough Clerk Marj Harris presented the assembly with two possibilities for new descriptions of each area. The assembly was interested in moving Alaska Power and Telephone’s Goat Lake project to area five. Hunz, who missed that meeting, suggested eliminating service area five entirely.
Manager Tom Smith said that Ron Pfleiger, from the Alaska Cruise Association, called to congratulate the borough on looking at the head tax issue. – MD
PHOTO OF THE WEEK
Surrounded by flowers, Mayor Tom Cochran announces the winners at the Order of the Eastern Star’s Flower and Garden show on August 9. Read the story and see more photos on page 7. Jeff Brady