Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Council vs Mayor: City hall infighting goes public

The City of Palmer passed the 2013 budget.

The $14-plus million budget includes a new 80/20 health insurance split for employees who until now got free coverage. The admittedly sweet deal on health insurance made up for lower wages and helped the city retain staff. 

But instead of employee retention, the staffing issue that dominated conversation at last week’s budget meeting was Mayor DeLena Johnson’s assistant.

Make that former assistant.

After an hour of sometimes bitter discussion, the council voted to ax Johnson’s part-time assistant on partisan lines. Yes, the Palmer City Council is a nonpartisan entity. But on this body, and most like it, certain issues reveal political divides. And there is an election coming up in the fall. 

Johnson said the position meant that, for the first time, someone answered the phone on behalf of the mayor. The mayor said the position wasn’t about improving communication between her office and the council as much as it was about adding an element of professionalism to her efforts as the city’s lobbyist in Juneau. 

The largely self-described conservatives on the council - Edna DeVries, Kathrine Vanover, Linda Combs, Richard Best - voted to ax the assistant. Best raised the motion; he opposed the position last year. 

“This is not about personalities,” Best said during the Dec. 11 meeting. He went on to describe the assistant as “an experiment last year to give the mayor an assistant to improve communication with the council. I think communication over the past year has gotten worse.”

That thought - the anti-assistant sentiment wasn’t personal, the degraded level of communication between mayor and council - was echoed by the four councilors. Several also questioned the city attorney on the legal merits of the position. City code dictates the mayor “shall not direct the appointment or removal of any administration officer or employee of the city.” The attorney at one point said the assistant, who technically falls under the supervision of the city clerk, didn’t violate those provisions. 

The opposing members remained unconvinced.

“Communication between the mayor’s office and this council has disintegrated,” Vanover said. “I’m not blaming that on the mayor. It is just a fact and it bothers me. I hate, and I will say this in public, infighting.” 

She went on to point out that city employes are being asked to give up their generous health insurance deal. “What have we as a council given up?” she asked. “This is our give-up. Not because the mayor doesn’t deserve it because that’s not true but we all have to contribute.”

Johnson was not pleased.

“I have watched this council, probably two or three people, spend a lot of time on managing the mayor’s office,” she said. “There’s probably a lot more interest in managing the mayor’s office than managing the manager. I see this as a good position doing good things ... I never asked for an assistant. I asked for assistance.”

Deputy mayor Brad Hanson scolded his fellow councilors. He said the creation of the mayor’s assistant wasn’t just to improve communication but “fulfill other inadequacies within the city.”

“It appears to me it’s more political than it is professional,” Hanson said. “I hope we can put some ill feelings, some unproductive activities, some undermining of one another to bed so we can deal with issues that are far more pressing.” 

-- Zaz Hollander

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Wind didn't freeze the Christmas spirit

Photo by Kristy Thom-Bernier
A worker from the Williams Reindeer Farm
minded one of the festively festooned deer
on display at Colony Christmas Saturday.

UPDATE: A new fireworks date is pending. Check back after the weekend for more details.

Colony Christmas was full of good cheer despite the blustery wind that killed the fireworks display (more on that in a minute) and drove people to the attractions indoors. Holiday warmth, fun events and good sales or attractions at downtown businesses made up for the bitter weather.

The temps even seemed to warm a little during the 5 p.m. parade – or perhaps that was a sugar-fueled warmth from the holiday treats handed out. But the breeze didn’t calm enough for the fireworks to be lit. The good news is, the fireworks display will be held soon. Chamber officials are meeting tomorrow morning to discuss when to hold the postponed show. We’ll update this post when we know the details.

-- Rindi White

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

High pressure system steals winter from snow lovers

Photo by Zaz Hollander
The sort-of snowy road to Mountain Streams B & B 

Got snow? Nope. In fact, we've got so little snow that snowplow drivers are sitting idle, snowmachines are sitting in the garage and homeowners are sweating the specter of frozen pipes brought on by low snow insulation. Even a big gala opening for the Mat-Su Borough's new Nordic Center at Government Peak is on temporary hold - no snow, no nordic skiing. 

What gives, Mother Nature? 

Two simple words, meteorologist Dan Peterson responds when asked: High pressure. 

"It always blocks out the lows. All the way through Tuesday," Peterson says. He's polite but sounds like he's tolerating these questions until he can get back to his real job as a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Anchorage. 

How many times can you tell somebody why it's not snowing? It's weather. It happens. 

But I get excited. He said through Tuesday! Does that mean we're getting snow on Tuesday?? 

Calm down, kid. Peterson says that's just the extent the National Weather Service forecasts into the future. 

OK, so this year feels pretty unusual. When was the last year we had so little snow this far into what Alaskans consider winter? 

Peterson thinks on that for a minute. He goes to the data. 1995. There was less than an inch of snow on the ground at this time of year. That's at Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport, where the Weather Service measures such things. This year, there's 2 inches at the airport.

"It's not even close," he says.

It's also not enough for plow trucks to get to work, snowmachiners to get to play or pipes to get cozied up in a layer of white. 

And what kind of winter postpones the inaugural"Skiapaloosa"? That's the Government Peak Nordic Center Ribbon Cutting Ceremony, featuring a Skate Clinic, races, Moonlight Ski Tour and Junior Nordic Social. Watch the Mat-Su Ski Club Web site for more information. 

Meanwhile, you can check Government Peak snow levels - or lack thereof - via the new weather station at Mountain Streams B & B, the lodge owned by Hatcher Pass nordic ski patriarch Ed Strabel and his wife, Glynn, at the base of Government Peak and just down the road from the new center. 

-- Zaz Hollander

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Mat-Su delegation holds key positions in Legislature

Photo from LobbyComply, a blog of
State and Federal Communications Inc.
The dust has settled and, with the makeup of the Alaska House and Senate finalized, it looks like Mat-Su is in a fairly good position.

Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, is the Senate President; a job former SPs have said means doing a lot of handholding. But the Senate President also steers the action in the Senate and appoints members to committees, such as the Legislative Budget and Audit Committee, which ultimately hammers out the state budget.

In a press availability following the announcement of new leadership positions, Huggins said he plans to focus on cutting state spending, increasing oil production (likely by working with Gov. Sean Parnell on his plan to cut oil taxes) and bring affordable energy to the state’s users.

Newly elected Sen. Mike Dunleavy chairs the Labor and Commerce Committee in the Senate. Dunleavy is also a member of the TAPS Throughput Decline Committee and is a member of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.

Mat-Su was also favored in the House. Rep. Bill Stoltze, a Republican who represents Chugiak and Butte, as well as a few other parts of Mat-Su, remains co-chair of the House Finance Committee, along with Republican Rep. Alan Austerman of Kodiak. Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, is a member of that committee.

Also in the house, Rep. Wes Keller, R-Wasilla, chairs the Judiciary Committee, Rep. Eric Feige, R-Chickaloon, co-chairs the House Resources Committee with Rep. Dan Saddler, R-JBER/Eagle River and Rep. Lynn Gattis, R-Wasilla, chairs the House Education Committee. Rep. Shelley Hughes, R-Palmer, was chosen as chair of the Economic Development, Trade and Tourism Special Committee in the House.

In case our readers have forgotten, Feige, a pilot and bed-and-breakfast operator, is married to Corri Feige, the former spokeswoman for Evergreen Resources, a company that wanted to drill for shallow natural gas in Mat-Su. She has since been project manager for a few other resource-based companies.

Gattis was elected to the Mat-Su School Board in 2010. She favors school vouchers, backs equal time in the classroom for creationism and evolution and is open to the idea of regional schools for rural areas of the state, according to a Zaz Hollander story in the Frontiersman about her appointment to the Education Committee. Gattis said she plans to resign from the School Board in order to serve in the Legislature. Her campaign manager, Erick Cordero, is School Board vice-president. He’ll be heading to Juneau with Gattis as a legislative aide but plans to stay on the school board. 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Mat Maid purchase mooving slowly

The Alaskana Bookstore
Photos by Zaz Hollander
Since 2008 or so, the City of Palmer has been trying to buy up the checkerboard of properties that make up the Matanuska Maid block. Voters two years ago very narrowly OK’d the city spending up to $3 million in a bond to buy the properties. 

Where do things stand today?

Not too far along, given the pollutants in the ground at as-yet unknown levels. Oh, also the fires that consumed first one warehouse, then the other on the 9-acre site. And apparently too-low offers on six of seven parcels.

As community development director Sandra Garley tells it, the city had appraisals done on all seven properties that make up the site. Seven property owners received offers. 

Only one property - the circa-1935 building that houses the Alaskana Bookstore at 564 S. Denali St. - is in the purchase loop. The city executed an agreement there that allows officials onto the property to start doing environmental studies. Even that is just a $5,000 “binder” as Garley calls it, to get a local environmental engineer on site to look at contamination from past uses.

“One thing the council said very clearly when we started the process: ‘We want to know before we buy anything, what is the environmental liability?’” Garley said. 

We’re not talking about manure here - no cows. But the original colony garage occupied the property, as did a powerhouse and two warehouses, both now lost to fire. That’s left pesticides and fertilizers, oils from the garage. Some, like oil and gas, tend to evaporate when exposed, Garley said. But chemicals in pesticides and fertilizers linger - it’s just not clear in what amount.

Anybody who buys contaminated property is liable to clean it up under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations, though the original owner also remains liable. 

The city got a $70,000 Brownfields grant from EPA. The agency uses the money to drill holes and sample for contamination. Before they enter any property, the city has to get permission, a la Alaskana Bookstore. 

The agency will wait and do sampling on the properties as a group, rather than come up from Seattle to do each site, Garley said.  

Meanwhile, city officials are still working on those six other parcels. The biggest and most expensive, at eight acres, is owned by the state Department of Natural Resources through the Agricultural Revolving Loan Fund. The city hopes to do a land swap, Garley said. That hasn’t happened yet. The powerhouse parcel is owned by the Palmer Arts Council. Jeff Johnson owns the parcel with mini-storage warehouses. Attorney Bill Ingaldson owns the warehouse property. 

“We’re proceeding slowly which can be frustrating to the property owners but we’re being careful because it’s a huge expense to the city,” Garley said. “There’s an upside but there are some downsides too.” 

She expects a report to the city council this month or next. 

-- Zaz Hollander

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Pair of juvenile reindeer escape for mini-migration

Photo by Rindi White
A reindeer grazes at the Williams Reindeer
Farm in October.

Caribou are on the move around Alaska and, this week, a pair of domesticated reindeer that had been recently relocated to a home off Trunk Road staged their own little mini-migration.

But these little deer weren’t looking for winter browse; the pair of 6-month-old reindeer wanted to find their herd. 

Williams Reindeer Farm manager Denise Hardy (she’s a Williams by birth, a Hardy by marriage) said the pair were two of nine weaned reindeer sold to families in Fairbanks, Southcentral and the Kenai Peninsula for 4Hers to raise and tame.

They are generally hauled to their new homes in August but another project kept the young reindeer at the farm until this week. On Monday the Trunk Road family took their pair of bucks home. On Tuesday they escaped.

So while many were awaiting election updates, Hardy and her crew were driving through neighborhoods looking for the reindeer. She said the pair apparently got split up after making their escape. One made it all the way to Sears on the Seward-Meridian Parkway before returning to his new family’s yard. The other headed south to Mat-Su Regional Medical Center and the Parks Highway.

“We kept getting calls from people, that there’s a reindeer running down the new Trunk Road, or there’s a reindeer near the hospital,” Hardy said.

She said a Mat-Su Borough Animal Care and Regulation officer successfully roped that deer and brought it safely back to its new family, but not before the deer had crossed Parks Highway a few times.

Hardy said she was amazed that the other reindeer made it back to its new owner’s yard after its little trek to Sears.

“He hadn’t even been there 24 hours and he still managed to get back there,” she said.

“They are domesticated deer. They were born on our farm and they’ve always been around other animals on the farm. We hoped that they would find a farm and just hang out there,” she said.

Reindeer occasionally get out on the farm, Hardy said. But being herd animals, they don’t venture far.

“They run around the fence and try to figure out how to get back in. When these poor little guys were transported to a whole new area, they were just trying to get back to their herd,” she said.

The pair of bucks made it back home safely – the one that traveled to Sears was skittish but eventually boarded a trailer that Ernie, a friendly 7-year-old neutered male reindeer from the younger bucks’ herd, was in. Hardy had brought the elder deer along to help calm and lure the juveniles – a strategy that paid off.

Hardy said the pair are adjusting to their new home in the trailer, with Ernie’s company for now. Soon they’ll be learning how to walk on a halter with their new owners and, by next summer, will likely be trotting around a show ring at the Alaska State Fair. Raising and showing reindeer is becoming more popular, Hardy said. Four were at the fair this year; three from the Williams farm and one from another reindeer farm. With nine being groomed for the fair next year, chances are competition is going to be tough.

In related news, the Reindeer Farm held its second round of Halloween Fun events this year, with a hay bale maze, haunted barn, country hoe-down, pony rides, pumpkin patch and more. People from all over the area descended on the farm each Saturday in October for fall fun. Hardy said a Christmas celebration is planned as well, with hay rides, singing, tours of the reindeer herd and visits with Santa. It's scheduled for Dec. 21 through 24. For more information about the event, check out the farm's events page.

-- Rindi White

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Waste on council's plate this budget season

The Mat-Su Borough Landfill
The biggest loser in the City of Palmer’s proposed budget involves solid waste instead of waistlines.

As reflected in the proposed budget presented in mid-October by city manager Doug Griffin, the Solid Waste fund reflects a deficit of $102,295 for 2013. Chalk it up to flat revenues and a "significant increase in tipping fees at the Borough Landfill in each of the last two years,” Griffin states. “This highlights a need for a review of solid waste rates to get this service back to at least a break-even enterprise operation.”

The manager otherwise anticipates small spending increases throughout the budget plus a nearly $200,000 general fund surplus, according to a written summary. An exception: The Fire Department budget increases more 15 percent, from $604,221 to $715,586, including a substantial compensation increase for volunteer fire fighters. The Greater Palmer Fire Service Association will pay half of the salary increase. 

Animal Control expenditures will also increase significantly, from $4,000 to $16,000. The budget was increased to account for proposed increases in shelter fees that the Mat-Su Borough is planning, although the contract is not yet finalized, according to the budget summary. 

A few slightly larger increases would bring the deputy clerk up to full time - an 8 percent increase from this year - and hire a part-time assistant for the airport manager. 

And in one of the most hotly discussed aspects of the budget, employee health insurance, Griffin suggests that employees now totally covered by the city move to an 80/20 plan “with relatively modest deductibles. If premiums increase 11 percent or less, employees will still not have to contribute, he said. 

In other waste-related news, the city council on Tuesday night approved spending $58,338 on a water/wastewater service rate study by consultant HDR. The city got a grant from the Legislature to fund a rate study. 

Check out the manager's budget at the city's Web site,

-- Zaz Hollander

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Big Cabbage collaboration

Bumper sticker courtesy Radio Free Palmer

Election time is nearly here. Speaking of which, don't forget to vote Nov. 6 or check here for info on where to vote on election day or earlier. Now's the time to decide which state and national candidates to cast a vote for, and to mull whether a Constitutional Convention should be held and why the Department of Transportation wants permission to issue bonds for $453 million.

Just in time for the election, Radio Free Palmer is debuting a new show, "Valley Edition." The show debuts at 5 p.m. Nov. 2 and will be rebroadcast at 8:30 a.m. Monday. If those times don't work, check the Big Cabbage website to download it to hear at your leisure. 

The show is styled on the popular KAKM "Anchorage Edition"show hosted by Alaska pundit Michael Carey, with topical discussion by journalists from Anchorage and Fairbanks. Radio Free Palmer member Mike Chmielewski will be moderating Valley Edition. On the hook for the first show are: Mark Kelsey, Frontiersman newspaper publisher; Terry Snyder, operator of Citizen Lobbyist, a blog about local issues; and the Post's very own Zaz Hollander. While election coverage will certainly be discussed, Chmielewski said it might not be the sole issue of the day. 

The best part is, Radio Free Palmer plans to broadcast the show weekly. So tune in Nov. 9 for post-election coverage and then keep tuning in to see what comes up!

-- Rindi White

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Salvation Army hopes to open 'Lunchbox' in Palmer

-- Photo courtesy The Children's Lunchbox

Bean’s Cafe started feeding the Mat-Su when its child feeding program,The Children’s Lunchbox, began serving meals here last December. Then things took off in April with a new kitchen in partnership with the Wasilla clubhouse of Boys & Girls Club - Alaska. 
Now the Salvation Army hopes a similar partnership will result in a similar meal program for children in Palmer. 
The Children’s Lunchbox operates under the umbrella of Bean’s Cafe, Anchorage’s long-established nonprofit that feeds adults. Founded in 1998, the Lunchbox program provides healthy meals for school-age children in a safe environment with a $500,000 annual budget. The program is expected to hand out about 200,000 meals this year in the form of breakfast, lunch and after-school meals, as well as weekend food delivered to students every Friday.
More than 100 of those meals are now going to children in the Valley, according to program director Lynette Ortolano. Several local organizations helped fund the Mat-Su expansion of The Children’s Lunchbox: Matanuska Electric Association; Bishop’s Attic II; and the Mat-Su Health Foundation. 
The Children’s Lunchbox provides meals to Denali Family Services and the Sutton Library. Willow schools asked for a weekend food program, Ortolano said. 
The Salvation Army in Palmer also hopes to start feeding students in partnership with The Children’s Lunchbox, said Mark Davey, who pastors at the Palmer center with his wife, Lisa. 
Like many students around Alaska, some children in Palmer get their only healthy meals - breakfast and lunch - at school. 
“There are some kids, once they’re done with school, they have no nutritional meal to eat for dinner,” Davey said. 
Improving nutrition means increased productivity in school as well as decreased obesity - after all, a bag of chips is cheaper than a bag of apples, as Davey notes. 
But there’s a challenge with the Salvation Army program, Ortolano said. The organization’s facility is too far from a school to qualify for reimbursement from the U.S. Department of Agriculture program that underpins partnerships with The Children’s Lunchbox. To get paid back for money spent, the Salvation Army and The Children’s Lunchbox will need to collect a stack of information - income data, among other things - before the Palmer program can qualify. 
It’s not ideal, Ortolano said, but "we're willing to go that route” if necessary.
Ortolano, who lives in the Valley, said she knows there’s a need for help here. She points to estimates of 890 homeless teenagers with the Mat-Su Borough School District, “and that’s not the little kids at all. That combined with the school-lunch data ... there are a lot of families who are struggling to have access to decent food.”
-- Zaz Hollander

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Smoke 'em if you got 'em (until the new year)

Voters passed a smoking ban this month, with 60 percent of voters in favor of the measure. So are smokers in local bars being asked to stub it out?

Not quite yet, said city manager Doug Griffin. The measure goes into effect in January.

Griffin said city leaders will meet with business owners in the next month or so to answer questions and help them understand what’s expected under the new rules. They’ll also be answering questions about two other recently passed city ordinances – one changing business license rules and one changing how the city sales tax is remitted. More on those later.

The smoking ban doesn’t just focus on bars – it prohibits smoking in any business where the public might have access. That’s the garage of your favorite auto shop, the wash bay at the car wash, pretty much anywhere that is not your personal vehicle or property, Griffin said. Standing on a stoop outside the door doesn’t pass muster either; smokers have to be at least 20 feet away from entrances and also 20 feet away from playgrounds or outdoor seating before they light up. The distance jumps to 50 feet outside health clinics. Places where alcohol is served get a small break; smokers must only be 10 feet away from their doors.

Get caught smoking in the wrong spot and you could get stung in the wallet – up to $100 for the first infraction and $300 if you get caught three times in two years. What’s more, if someone spots a smoker in violation, they can take it to court and get up to $300 from the wayward smoker.

Businesses are required to tell smokers to scram, and to report violators if they don’t. Griffin said he wasn’t sure whether a business could be held liable for people violating the smoking ban on their premises. If a business had posted a “no smoking within 20 feet of the entrance” sign and had done all it was required to do, then probably not, but he’d have to run that question by the city attorney. He also said he’d check on whether the city is going to require signs prohibiting smoking be posted – if so, city employees may be making signs to hand out to businesses, he said.

Griffin said the measure is based on one in Juneau that has weathered legal challenges. 

The other two issues Griffin plans to meet with business leaders about focus on recent changes to city business license and sales tax collection rules.

In September, the council agreed to add a few options for people doing business in the city. Business owners will be able to get two-year licenses, just like the state of Alaska provides, or they can get a license for a three-day event, such as Colony Days. The council also created a state fair business license.

Fees for the new licenses haven’t been set – that’s something the council will do when it considers the city budget next month. But Griffin said he’s not recommending any changes. A yearly city business license currently runs $25; he’ll suggest the biennial license be $50, he said. For the shorter licenses, it’s a matter of finding a fair number. The three-day license might be $10, he said.

“We’re trying to find a sweet spot here, of getting them in (to buy a license),” he said.

Griffin said he’s also trying to make sure businesses are on equal footing – a weekend operator shouldn’t get an advantage over a year-round business.

Paired with the business license changes are new rules for sales tax collection. Currently, any business operating in the city – including vendors only working during the fair – have to submit monthly sales tax reports. Forgetting a report could cost $20, even if no business has been conducted.

The changes set up several tiers of duty for business owners. Businesses doing between $100,000 and $250,000 in taxable sales will be able to submit quarterly sales tax returns and sellers making fewer than $100,000 in taxable sales can submit twice a year. State fair vendors can turn in just one tax report, in October, and special event vendors can turn their reports in the month after their event ends. Businesses doing more than $250,000 in taxable sales will have to turn in monthly reports.

Griffin said the measure aims to streamline reporting and make it easier for businesses and city employees. Processing $0 monthly reports in December from a business owner who operated a booth at the fair ends up being a “needless paper chase, wasting their time and ours,” he said.

Keep an eye on the Greater Palmer Chamber of Commerce schedule for a city presentation about the new rules. Their web site is here.

-- Rindi White

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Local election coverage in ADN the big loser

I woke up this morning to check the news on unofficial election results for Palmer. 
It wasn't easy.
City council incumbents Richard Best and Ken Erbey easily retained their seats against challenger Elden Tritch. 
A surprise, at least to me: the smoking ban in Palmer bars passed by a wide margin with roughly 60 percent of the 735 ballots tallied this week in favor.  
Another surprise: the Anchorage Daily News, at least in the form of, had nothing on the Palmer, Wasilla, Houston or boroughwide elections. Including the election of the mayor of the Mat-Su Borough. 
They did run a story on the Anchorage budget. Yet another homicide investigation. Both stories take time and resources. But there was also a “rare century-old Alaska $5 bill to be auctioned in Texas,” updated at 6:01 a.m. 
I kept checking for at least a brief mention of Palmer and the Mat-Su. By noon, still nothing. Oh, except an AP story on Juneau, Sitka, North Pole and Fairbanks election results. 
The Frontiersman’s Web site had election news leading the page, but they’ve recently switched to an online subscription model and I haven’t signed up. 
Long rant short, I was hard-pressed to get local election results with any kind of analysis from my usual media sources this morning. 
I got them at the Mat-Su Borough Web site, where results were immediately available, probably thanks to former journalist Patty Sullivan who is still invested in getting information to the public quickly, accurately and in a readily accessible form. I went to the City of Palmer Web site, where clerk Janette Bower posted a link to election results in the same manner: right there on the home page. 
I know how hard everyone is working at the Daily News these days. The three Post founders met there, and we realize that the editorial staff has been gutted by layoffs and attrition. I still know many reporters and editors there. I respect them. 
But it just takes a few minutes to post a paragraph summarizing election results and add a link to the actual information. Just a few minutes to let Mat-Su readers know the paper hasn't written us off entirely unless if we do something crazy, illegal or in the path of a natural disaster. 
By the way, I sent an e-mail to the news desk wondering about the omission. I still haven’t heard back. 
Here’s a link to Palmer’s election results:

-- Zaz Hollander

Friday, September 28, 2012

Academy Charter growing in leaps

Photo Courtesy Academy Charter School
Sixth-grade student Jolene Malone, center, helps pour concrete for her school's addition this summer. Her father, Don Malone, is on the right, in the orange safety vest.

A 10-classroom addition at Academy Charter School is on track to be finished by the end of December. That’s great news for the school, which has been operating out of portable buildings almost since it opened in 1996.

 “December 30 is the date on the contract for us to move in. We’ll have one week before school starts up to move out of the portables,” said an excited Academy principal Barbara Gerard.

Gerard said the contractor – Dowland Construction – poured the second-story floor and is finishing the roof. Then it’ll be time to paint and get the windows in before freeze-up. A paved parking lot and hook-up to city sewer services are also on the before-winter checklist. 

The new building will house grades K-5 but it’s just one step toward Academy’s final goal, to have a high school and playground at their site. The school has $2 million from the state legislature for its next phase of construction – 10 additional classrooms for grades 6-8 and rooms for art and Spanish, as well as library space. The library and other classes are currently housed in portables on the 3.77-acre school site.

Gerard said that project would likely be put out to bid this fall and complete sometime next year. She’s hoping it will be ready for fall 2013 classes but it could be another end-of-year completion. Either way, Gerard said she’d take it.

“Next Christmas would be wonderful,” she said.

Down the road, Gerard said the school plans to add grades 9-12 and a theater – perhaps one that the whole community can use, she said. The school doesn’t have funding for those phases yet, she said.

“That’s all in the future,” Gerard said.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

City employees face health insurance hike

The City of Palmer offers one of the state’s richest health-benefit packages in the state. And it’s busting the city’s budget.

Employee health benefits are so generous - the city’s 68 covered employees pay no premiums - that officials say they can’t afford to keep up the status quo.

With next year’s budget talks underway, Palmer administrators say the city needs to make the transition from the current health insurance plan to one that costs the city less - and employees more. 

But employees say they take jobs here with the understanding that high benefits will balance out Palmer’s notoriously low pay rates. For example, a deputy city clerk at Palmer starts at $20.84 an hour; that position is currently staffed at 28 hours. The same position in Wasilla starts at $25.36. 

The city council held a special meeting Tuesday night to discuss the health insurance issue, along with budget and capital project matters.  

Council members expressed reluctance to make any health-insurance decisions until the budget and health-care cost picture gets more clear in the coming months. The city will approve a budget in December.  

Council member Edna DeVries said she wanted the overall picture before making a decision on employee health benefits. 

But DeVries - and several other council members - pledged not to ask Palmer taxpayers to shoulder the financial burden.

“I’m not going to raise sales taxes, I’m not going to raise the property tax rate, I’m not going to go into reserves no matter what the budget looks like,” DeVries said. 

Health insurance cost the city $1.5 million this year, according to City Manager Doug Griffin. Costs are expected to rise 11 or 12 percent next year, an account executive from insurance carrier Alaska USA Insurance Brokers told the council Tuesday. 

At the meeting, Griffin unveiled his two leading employee health insurance proposals after employees panned a half-dozen options sent them in July. More than a dozen city employees came out to hear the discussion; none spoke. 

Griffin proposed keeping the current plan, which offers a 90-10 co-pay split and low deductibles, but with employees paying 5 percent of the premiums. 

That option, however, probably won’t save the city any money, Griffin realized as the night went on. The 5 percent savings from employee contributions would be more than offset by the anticipated increase in health costs next year.

The other option he floated was one with an 80-20 split for co-pay and higher deductibles. That option could save the city about 11 percent, at least enough to offset the projected cost increases, officials calculated as the meeting continued. 

Council member Richard Best voiced his support for the 90-10 plan as a transition to an 80-20 split in the future, as did council members Linda Combs and Ken Erbey. 

Council member Brad Hanson agreed with DeVries on keeping the burden off individual taxpayer and waiting for more budget information. 

“I know this is very very difficult situation for everybody but a 90-10 plan is something the city is not going to be able to afford long term,” Hanson said.

Mayor DeLena Johnson expressed her support for the 80-20 split and urged the council to think broadly about the insurance questions. 

The council took no action Tuesday night on employee benefits. The next budget discussion is scheduled for Oct. 16.  

-- Zaz Hollander

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Help wanted: Palmer dismisses finance director

The City of Palmer is once again headed into budget season without a finance director.

The city hired Brant Mursch as finance director in October 2011. Last month, Mursch was out. The city is now seeking its third finance director in the last two years. 

City manager Doug Griffin would only say that the decision to remove Mursch involved a “personnel issue that I’m really not at liberty to talk about to any great degree.” 

Mayor DeLena Johnson hadn’t talked with Griffin at length about what happened, she said. She was out of town at the time. 

“I’ve been assured there’s no concern regarding the finances,” Johnson said. “That’s one thing I’ve been told, one thing I asked for reassurance on.”

The city made it through budget-setting last year with an acting finance director, Gina Davis. She’ll be back in that position this year, the mayor said. 

Davis may not be overjoyed to be there again, deputy mayor Richard Best said. “She knows what it took to pretty much do it on her own last year.”

Best said he’d heard the “personnel issue” explanation as well but the council has no authority to get more information. Best said he personally got along well with Mursch and that he was doing a good job for the city. 

“He was, what, 10 months into it? There was interest for him to really have his teeth sunk into things,” he said. “I was looking forward to this budget cycle.”

Whatever happened did not involve any misuse of the city’s money, Griffin said when asked. Mursch did a good job improving the city’s rate of return on investments, the city manager said. The financial report was “done to a higher standard,” he said. 

Before coming to Palmer, Mursch spent about two years as the finance director for the Bristol Bay Borough. Nobody there could say much about him; there’s been a lot of turnover down in Naknek, several staffers said. 

Before that, Mursch worked as director of finance for a nonprofit called Health Care for the Homeless in Milwaukee, Wisc. starting in August 2005, according to a brief write-up in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. He’d previously served as financial operations administrator at Cameo Care, a nursing home in Milwaukee. 

Mursch did not return a call to his home this week. 

The city is recruiting for a new director through ads on its Web site and in newspapers. 

-- Zaz Hollander

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Yahoo, Mat-Su's new view - someday

Homestead RV Park, the first RV park one encounters when driving to the Valley from Anchorage, has been shuttered all summer. For locals that means fewer traffic delays from motorhomes turning there but it’s led many to ask what’s in store for the spot, which has stunning views of Pioneer Peak and the Palmer Hay Flats.

Currently, Matanuska Electric Association owns the land, which includes acreage both on top of and below the bluff, including land along the flats. MEA spokeswoman Suzie Deuser said the cooperative needs the land for a larger right-of-way path as part of its Eklutna natural gas power plant project. But MEA is working with Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau to use the prime property up top as a new spot for the Mat-Su Visitor Information Center.

Here's a clip from the May 2011 Gateway Gathering, where community leaders and MSCVB members toured and gave feedback on the best spot for a new visitor center. The clip begins at the state park across the highway from the RV park; at about the one-minute mark participants visit the RV park. 

MSCVB has been housed for more than 20 years in a prow-front log cabin near Mat-Su Regional Medical Center. The visitor center predates the hospital and, with changes to the traffic flow from the expanded Parks Highway, hospital access and, most recently, Trunk Road, visitors to the center arrive with exclamations of “We finally made it!” said MSCVB director Bonnie Quill.

Quill said their visitor numbers are down significantly because of the easy-to-spot but hard-to-reach location. Fewer visitors mean fewer opportunities to suggest that tourists take a tour of local farms, stay overnight at a bed-and-breakfast or take a backcountry four-wheeler tour.

So MSCVB has been working for five years to find the perfect spot for a new visitor center. A federal grant helped narrow the list from 12 sites to one: the Homestead RV Park. In addition to an amazing view, Quill said the site is located ideally – it’s near the juncture of the Matanuska and Susitna valleys and has easy access just off the highway.

It’s also across the street from a state park Quill called a gem – Matanuska Lakes State Recreation Area. The two facilities could work together, she said, with MSCVB providing overflow parking on sunny days when park traffic trails out onto the highway. She’s even spoken with state Department of Transportation officials about installing an under- or overpass to allow traffic to go from one side to the other safely when the Glenn Highway is expanded.

Photo courtesy MSCVB
The existing visitor center has limited space for meetings
but sits on valuable commercial land.
Ideally, Quill said, the new visitor center will be 20,000 square feet, with outside interpretive areas and space for community gatherings. It's comparable to the Begich-Boggs Visitor Center near Portage and, in a 2010 preliminary study, the cost to build was pegged at $14 million.

The only thing blocking MSCVB staff from packing up their offices at the log cabin and making the move is, well, money. Quill said she’s applied for $2 million in federal National Scenic Byways funding for site acquisition and design but was turned down. Another application just for site acquisition funding was also turned down. She said she’ll pursue state funding during the upcoming legislative session.

The center does have funding behind the plan. The Mat-Su Borough owns the 4.6 acres the visitor center sits on but the Assembly last year agreed to sell the land and dedicate the proceeds to the new visitor center. It’s hard to say exactly how much the land might sell for; land sales in that area have been quite competitive, Quill said.

Without money for the project in hand, Quill said it was impossible to say when the new visitor center would be built. But she plans to be talking up the project everywhere she can in the next year, so she hopes the project won’t stay on the shelf long.

-- Rindi White