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