December 11, 2009 • Vol. XXXII, No. 22

Tree Triggered

Denver Evans, left, assisted Santa with throwing the big switch to light the community Christmas tree at 5th and Broadway Dec. 4 to kick off a month of Yuletide festivities. As the lights went on, a flock of crows flew out of the tree. Town crier John Jackson rang the bell, led the choir, and marched everyone down the street to the Olde Tyme Radio Show and Christmas Sing-along at the NPS auditorium. Quilt shows, bazaars, and craft making followed, and more is in store this weekend. See more photos on page 5 of our print edition and a list of Yuletide events in the Community Calendar. See more n our Yuletide Beginnings photo page. Andrew Cremata

Budget crunch ahead for Skagway School

District looking at 75-79 kids next year

By JEFF BRADY

Enrollment at Skagway School is expected to drop below 80 next year, and the district is faced with making up an expected shortfall of $220,000.
During a school board work session Tuesday night attended by several parents and teachers, Superintendent Les McCormick apologized for delivering bad news right before Christmas, but said the community needed to be aware of the situation.
He said he had already discussed the looming financial woes with the board, staff and borough officials.
McCormick said staff had come up with some ideas for saving money, and some board members and parents have been trying to get other parents to take in foreign exchange students to boost enrollment next year. The borough assembly also is aware the school district may need more help.
However, the municipality already is funding at the state-mandated cap for school operations, and also has funded six special programs: extra curricular activities, food service, technology, vocational education, pre-school, and music. The borough tapped its so-called “rainy day” Tongass National Forest receipts account to fund those programs last year, spending $450,392 of the $773,000 in the account.
Another $1.341 million from sales tax funds went toward school operations, while the state foundation formula gave the district about $644,000, based on a projected enrollment of 95 students. But the final district count from October is going to come in at 89.5, leaving this year’s budget with a shortfall.
District secretary Debbie Knorr said the school started the year with more than 100 students, but lost several from summer families leaving town by mid-September. When the count period started in early October, there were 94 students, and enrollment declined further.
And next year’s forecast is bleaker. Currently 82 students are walking the halls, McCormick said, and his most hopeful estimate is an enrollment of 79 next year. But he said staff told him it could be as low as 75 students.
The situation has been heading this way the past couple years, as enrollment dropped below 101. Last year, when enrollment hit 94.5, it kicked in a lower funding formula from the state. He said districts are pleading with the state to lower that threshold to 41 students, since many are between 41 and 101.
“A lot of districts in between are struggling,” McCormick said.
But the small districts are not alone. After speaking with many of his fellow superintendents, he said all but the Mat-Su district are facing budget numbers in the red next year. Even Juneau, which saw an unexpected increase in enrollment this year, is facing a $1 million shortfall, he said.
McCormick said the Skagway district’s focus is currently on the six special programs, which he projected on a screen.
“If the borough decides not to fund them, these are the programs that get eliminated or drastically cut,” he said.
It would be up to the borough to fund them from what was left of the forest receipts, more sales tax funds, or an increase in property taxes, he said, which would be the least desirable.
“We are working on how we can keep these,” he said, adding that the borough was willing to work with them. “They are very aware of where the district is at.”
McCormick said at some point, as enrollment kept declining this decade, the district should have done more about its budget. A hold harmless waiver from the state to ease them into cuts after dropping below 101 will last only a couple years.
The district plans to get a little help from federal migrant student funds of about $10-15,000, he said, after they sign those students up in the spring.
McCormick said the number of students entering school will not be higher than those graduating for several years, and he expects enrollment to hover in the 70s until 2016.
Cuts are needed, but they can’t come from pencils and paper, he said. Most districts look at staffing, which makes up about 85 percent of the budget, and building needs.
Assemblyman Tim Cochran, the borough’s new school liaison, thanked Rick Hess and Tanner Hanson of the maintenance staff for coming up with a plan to save $40,000 in energy costs, just by replacing outdated light fixtures and other items with energy-efficient models.
No one has mentioned possible staff or wage cuts, at least not in public. The board has met three times in executive session in the past two months, and negotiations with teachers will occur in the new year.
Most ideas being kicked around are for finding ways to bolster enrollment to stave off the shortfall. Much of the work session was spent on coming up with discussion topics for the Community Forum on Jan. 19. A report on those ideas will appear in the Dec. 23 issue.

Local effort underway to insure all residents for Guardian medevacs residents

Town plan: Rate would be based on households

By JEFF BRADY

Two local residents have started approaching charitable and business organizations and the borough about the possibility of creating a fund that would pay for the insurance premiums to cover air medevacs for the entire community.
Simon Claydon and Daniel Papke first approached the Eagles and then presented their idea to the Skagway Borough Assembly on Dec. 3.
Currently, anyone can pay a $75 annual premium to Apollo MT insurance to cover the expensive Guardian air medevac flights, and an extra $25 for ambulance rides. Those rates cover an entire family for a year – a bargain compared to a $25,000 bill for a medevac flight.
However, there are some who cannot afford even that $100, and Claydon and Papke came up with the idea of creating a community fund to cover every resident of Skagway. After reading in the Nov. 25 Skagway News that some residents have put themselves in “economic triage” by avoiding medical help for fear of the high cost of a medevac, they decided to approach the insurer, who had stated that other communities had organized fundraisers to cover the uninsured.
They made some calls to Apollo Medi Tran, which said they would extend a 10 percent discount on a community rate. Then it was whether to base the rate on the town’s listed population of 862, or the number of households, about 355. With an average of 2.5 residents per household, at a discounted cost of $90 per home, the total rate for the community was estimated at $32,000 annually.
They needed a non-profit organization under which they could organize, and first approached the Eagles, where Papke is chaplain. He said the idea is subject to approval by their trustees, but they received permission to go ahead and approach others.
At the assembly meeting, they asked the assembly to consider a contribution of $10,000, and will be asking several other organizations for contributions. Papke said they have $3,000 in verbal commitments thus far.
Claydon said organizations like the Eagles and Elks receive requests for help with medical bills all the time, and sometimes hold benefits, to aid people in the community. A contribution toward covering every person in town could be seen as a better use of those resources, he said.
Mayor Tom Cochran said he liked the concept, but asked the two men to bring back some hard numbers.
“If they can get a bunch of public support and come back in a month or so with $22,000, I don’t see why we couldn’t kick in,” the mayor said.
Health Education and Welfare chair Colette Hisman said she wanted to meet with the two men to discuss how the program would work and look at “the mechanics.” She suggested they continue to approach organizations for support, and then come back to the assembly on Dec. 17. At that time, the assembly could schedule a meeting in January and gather input from the public, she said.
Papke said a representative from Apollo MT would be willing to come down from Fairbanks for a meeting.
Claydon said that if they could get every year-round resident covered, then they could look at a method to cover seasonal residents as well.
Even for those who have medical insurance or are on Medicaid – which can be billed for the flights – the 20 percent cost of a co-pay on a $25,000 bill is substantial.
Apollo MT vice president Tim Baker was out of the state this week and could not be reached for comment.

Oral history project kicks off with first round of interviews

Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park has begun conducting interviews for the Skagway Oral History Project, working with two Fairbanks researchers with experience in similar projects for the University of Alaska.
Although attendance was light at a Dec. 2 public meeting, the project coordinators received plenty of information to help them with ideas about various Skagway topics and whom they should interview over the next several months.
Park Historian Karl Gurcke said a big part of the project will be taking archived oral and videotape interviews over the past several years from the park’s and Skagway Museum’s collections and converting them to digital format. He also welcomes additions to their collection.
“Just the other day I got a call from someone who saw the article in the paper (Nov. 25 issue) and they told me they have a number of hours of home movie footage,” he said.
But he said they want to go out and interview as many people as they can.
“History is occurring every day,” he said, recalling how he regretted not getting all his dad’s stories on tape before he passed away.
Gurcke said it is important for people to hear the voices as they tell the stories, as well as going out and getting permission to use them in a public format.
Oral histories have indeed moved into the digital age, and interviews are no longer secluded to library drawers.
UAF established its “Project Jukebox” series through the school’s Elmer E. Rasmuson Library in 1988, noted research associate Karen Brewster in her presentation. It was one of the first of its kind, she said.
All recordings will come to the park in Skagway, but they eventually may be made available for the “Project Jukebox” series on the UAF library website. The recordings are combined with video of the interviews, and historical photos, so viewers can see the person talking as they listen to the interview on the website. Off to the side is a historical photo related to the period being discussed.
Working with Fairbanks oral history interviewer Stacey Carkhuff of Info Insights, their goal is to document Skagway’s history beyond the gold rush, “getting stories from people who lived it,” Brewster said.
Carkhuff is already familiar with the area’s World War Two history from work on her master’s oral history thesis on the building of the Alaska Highway.
She highlighted various topics that the interviewers would like to focus on. They include: grocery business, lifestyle changes, buildings, newspapers, post office, nursing, arts community, fishing, historic preservation, tourism, railroad, WW2, port and highway, Dyea, recreation, native history, waterways and docks, and the National Park Service.
At the meeting, audience members suggested different people to be interviewed, including longshoremen and the crews who restored the buildings in Skagway, as well as a new topic on the changes in the community brought on by the growth of cruise ships.
The first round of interviews lasted about a week and concluded this past Monday, but the team will return in early May 2010. To see a selection of their previous work in places like Unalaska and other communities, see www.uaf.edu/library.jukebox.
If you are interested in being interviewed or have ideas about topics, contact Gurcke at the park, (907) 983-9214, or Carkhuff at (907) 262-9697 / (907) 690-1701. – JB

Above, Skagway railroad historian Carl Mulvihill is interviewed by Karen Brewster and Stacey Carkhuff at the NPS conference room. Jeff Brady

BOROUGH DIGEST (complete digest in print edition)

Rasmuson Health Center nearing substantial completion
The new Edward A. and Jenny Rasmuson Community Health Center was supposed to be substantially complete as of Dec. 4, but several small punch list items still remain to be completed, said Clinic Administrator Michelle Moss, and a move will not commence until there is final completion. That’s looking more like January.
At its Dec. 3 meeting, the Skagway Borough Assembly approved the ninth change order for the project, which extended the substantial completion date to Dec. 4 and added $55,701 to the project cost. This brings the total additions to the contract from change orders to $259,951, or 4.3 percent of the base bid of $5.987 million by Dawson Construction, noted special projects manager Alan Sorum in a Dec. 1 report to the assembly.
Sorum, the former borough manager, was retained to oversee the clinic completion after his resignation a year ago. In his report, he noted that the project was bid in a favorable climate, well below the $9 million original budget, and that a 4.3 percent change order cost was very reasonable.
“This is an exceptionally good value for change order costs on a project of this type,” Sorum wrote. “Most owners are pleased with additional costs below 12 percent or so. There will be at least one more change order issued to close out the project, but the remaining work does not effect the substantial completion of the building and shouldn’t pose any large increase in project costs.”
However, in an e-mail this week, Moss said substantial completion did not occur on the 4th, as there were still some small outstanding punch list items.
Assembly member Colette Hisman, chair of the Health, Education and Welfare Committee, said most of the change order items were a result of requests from clinic staff or the borough after the project began. She said the move into the new facility probably will not be until January.
The latest round of change orders involved installation of required appliances and proper ventilation of the oxygen storage room.
Remaining items to be installed include exterior entryway perimeter light fixtures (shipment delayed until Dec. 21), nightlights for the standby generator circuit, added gutters and downspouts, and wider doors for the urgent care rooms.

Treatment plant engineering to HDR
 The borough received just one submission in response to its RFP for engineering the wastewater treatment plant upgrade, but it came from a company that was already familiar with the project.
HDR Alaska, which completed a feasibility study on plant upgrades earlier in the fall, estimated its design, engineering and construction management costs would total $466,623. The feasibility study recommended an enhanced primary clarification project at an estimated cost of $4.86 million.
HDR has worked on projects in Homer and Soldotna, and throughout the western U.S. It will use Carson-Dorn of Juneau as a subconsultant for construction administration.
According to the project schedule from HDR, the project design should be ready for review by the Department of Environmental Conservation and Fire Marshal by May, and can go out to bid on June 15. A contract would be awarded August 1, a building would be up by the end of October, and systems would be installed over the winter. Startup would occur the following March, with acceptance of the project in May 2011.

Tone of follow-up letter to Corps questioned
 Assemblyman Paul Reichert questioned why a second letter to the Army Corps of Engineers in response to concerns from White Pass about the Gateway Project did not go before the assembly.
The assembly had reviewed and sent a letter on Nov. 13 which addressed the concerns (see Nov. 25 issue), and White Pass and the borough subsequently agreed to work on an Memorandum of Understanding. But the tone of the second letter on Nov. 24 might jeopardize those negotiations, Reichert said.
White Pass had asked the Corps to consider potential economic impacts on their cruise ship operations at the ore dock during construction, and the borough had originally responded that the work would be timed so there would be no conflicts. The borough also said it would contact other users in the area, particularly Cruise Line Agencies of Alaska and TEMSCO Helicopters.
The second letter offered additional comment, noting that White Pass’s letter “stresses personal business concerns rather than any engineering or environmental problems or issues” with the proposed project.” It asked the Corps to ignore the company’s “allegations of potential ‘financial losses.’”
It further stated that it had not restricted other businesses from the planning process, and that CLAAA and TEMSCO were owned by the same company and aware of the project. It added that TEMSCO’s operation would not be affected.
The letter also delved into the condition of the ore dock, saying the railroad had failed to maintain it, and that the Gateway project would relieve those safety hazards, and also address possible environmental contamination in the area.
Reichert asked who approved the second letter, and why it could not have waited until that night’s assembly meeting, noting that it possibly should have been discussed with the attorney during an executive session.
Mayor Tom Cochran took a share of the blame, saying the second letter resulted from a call Manager Tom Smith and he had with the municipal attorney. The letter went out with Smith’s signature.
Smith said it probably should have gone before the assembly, and Cochran agreed, admitting that the tone of the letter is “a little harsh.” But Cochran said they were up against a deadline to respond to the Corps.
“My concern is how White Pass will take the letter,” Reichert said. “I felt I should bring it up.” – JB

GLASS WITH CLASS – Skagway High School students Riley Westfall, Paige Hahn, Rori Leaverton, Emily Herbig, Elise Doland, and Bryce Jones gather around their unique glass mosaic project before inlaying the work of art into a table that will be auctioned off at the Yuletide Ball this weekend. Link to story in School Features below. Jeff Brady