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