Top 10 city stories for 2017

City takes action against downtown campers

 

One of the most talked-about city actions of the year came early on. In a February Assembly meeting, Assembly members passed an amendment to an ordinance allowing the Juneau Police Department to evict or fine people sleeping on private property downtown.

Prior to the amendment, JPD was required to contact the private property owner before removing a sleeping (or “camping,” as most referred to it) person from the property. The new policy began on April 15, forcing those sleeping on the streets to find another place to stay. The action spurred a communitywide conversation about homelessness, and what can and should be done about it.

City shuts down Bergmann Hotel

In early March, the CBJ issued an order to vacate the Bergmann Hotel, a historic building that ended up being semi-permanent housing for low-income Juneau residents. The following day, the tenants were evicted and manager Charles Cotten was arrested.

The building had been run down for years, and issues included an inoperable sprinkler system, inconsistent heating, no hot water, sewage issues and more.

Though the problems were long-standing, the eviction process itself was fairly quick, and residents had a hard time finding places to stay. The Salvation Army operated an emergency shelter for many of them in the meantime, but many former Bergmann residents were left to find places to camp throughout downtown and elsewhere.

City mulls changes to mining ordinance

At the end of April, a group of businessmen sent a proposal to the Assembly requesting that the city revamp its mining ordinance to make it more attractive for mining companies to pursue mining in the borough. The main argument in the proposal was that parts of the city’s mining ordinance are redundant to federal and state regulations.

Since the Alaska-Juneau Mine closed in 1944, there have been occasional attempts to reopen it or pursue other mining opportunities in the borough. A group under the name of Echo Bay Alaska attempted to reopen the mine in the early 1990s, but mining operations ended in 1997. FBI and EPA investigations revealed that the company had leaked chemicals into Gold Creek and had lied about the chemicals it was using.

Assembly members agreed to look into the ordinance, which has been in place since 1989. Mayor Ken Koelsch appointed a subcommittee to look into the ordinance, chaired by Assembly member Norton Gregory. The committee commissioned Bob Loeffler, a consultant with natural resource issues firm Jade North, LLC, to examine the ordinance. Loeffler’s report read that the ordinance was fairly typical and not overly duplicative. The Mining Committee also just appointed four members of the public this month, and is set to meet with its full group soon.

Housing First opens

A project years in the works finally got up and running this September, as the Housing First Collaborative project opened its doors to 32 of Juneau’s most vulnerable residents. The facility provides housing and medical services to people who had been living on the streets, and staff members aim to help residents find work and permanent housing eventually.

The project was five years in the making, and eventually cost $8.2 million. Much of it was funded through grants and donations, but the CBJ supplied more than $3 million of that.

Residents were selected based on a study in the early summer that identified Juneau’s most vulnerable residents. Staff from the Glory Hole Shelter, St. Vincent de Paul, the Juneau Alliance for Mental Health, Inc., the Juneau Police Department and others tracked 96 homeless individuals, ranking them on how long they had been homeless and how often they required emergency services. An evaluation tool called the Alaska Homeless Management Information System (AHMIS) then computed “vulnerability scores” for the people in the study and ranked them. Housing First staff then selected the 32 most valuable people to try and get into housing.

Canadian company looks to buy Juneau’s electric utility

On July 19, it was announced that Canadian power company Hydro One was going to buy Avista, which is the parent company of Juneau’s Alaska Electric Light & Power. The deal, initially estimated to be worth $5.3 billion is expected to close in the second half of 2018 as long as it gets approved by state regulatory commissions.

The news came just four years after Avista acquired AEL&P in 2013. Hydro One, based in Toronto, is 49 percent owned by the government of Ontario.

The Regulatory Commission of Alaska (RCA) has been examining the sale, with the public comment period just closing Dec. 21. The City and Borough of Juneau Assembly has discussed the deal and its implications at length, and will be meeting with a former RCA commissioner in January to learn more about the process.

Hospital adds new approach in addressing opioid crisis

The nationwide opioid crisis has not spared Juneau, as the use of heroin and other opioids has risen in recent years. This spring, Bartlett Regional Hospital added a new approach to its repertoire in addressing its fight against opioid addiction.

The approach, called medically-assisted treatment or office-based opioid treatment, uses a medication called Buprenorphine (the brand name, Suboxone, is more commonly used) that helps stabilize brain chemistry as addicts go through counseling and search for ways to stay sober. Staff at Rainforest Recovery Center think extremely highly of the program and it started to show results this summer. In August, the Empire spoke to one couple who said the program was the most effective way to recovery that they’ve tried to date.

Downtown fire claims two lives

Early on the morning of Sept. 17, a historic downtown building caught fire, resulting in the deaths of two brothers. The building, located at 526 N. Seward St., was being used as a bed and breakfast called The Dining Inn.

Seven people were inside at the time of the fire. Five made it out before Capital City Fire/Rescue arrived, and when CCFR responders located the other two people, they were unresponsive. Ambulances transported the two men to Bartlett Regional Hospital where they were both pronounced dead.

The two men were later identified as 34-year-old “Wilfrido” Luis Román Olivarría Mora and 21-year-old Adrian de Jesus Olivarria Mora, two brothers. A crowdfunding effort began soon after the fire to send the men’s bodies back to their home in Mexico, and it raised more than $5,000.

The investigation into the fire concluded in mid-December, but didn’t offer many answers. The cause of the fire is still unknown, though the blaze was determined to have started on the back deck on the second story.

City considers options in addressing erosion on Mendenhall River

As the banks of the Mendenhall River continue to change, nearby homeowners are faced with a difficult decision. The city has been in talks with the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) to do a project to reinforce the banks to protect homes from eventually crashing into the river as the banks erode.

The problem is, this project is estimated to cost nearly $8 million, with almost $2 million falling on the city’s shoulders. Assembly members have gone back and forth with homeowners along Meander Way, located near Thunder Mountain High School along the banks of the river, about payment options.

Under the NRCS plan, homeowners would be on the hook for around $80,000 each, even those whose banks are doing well. That number could rise to around $100,000, depending on how the project goes. The neighbors have proposed other payment plans to the city, but Assembly members are wary to commit a large amount of resources to the project when costs are tight.

Assembly adds new member

Rob Edwardson, a legislative staffer for Rep. Justin Parish, D-Juneau, decided in June that he would run for an Assembly seat. It’s something he’d wanted to do for a while, but a workshop about how to run for public office encouraged him that now was the time to run.

Less than four months later, Edwardson watched as election results came in on Oct. 3 and revealed that he had earned a seat on the Assembly. He defeated incumbent Debbie White, earning 59.9 percent of the vote.

Voter turnout took a bit of a dip from the 2016 municipal election, as 28.2 percent of registered voters cast their ballots this year compared to 33.5 percent in 2016. Most election officials chalked this up to the fact that the ballot initiatives were not as intriguing this year as in past years.

Community rallies in name of museum

During the city’s budget process this year, city officials enlisted some members of the community to rank which city services were the most important. One of the city-funded programs near the bottom of the list was the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, and the possibility to cut funding for the museum came up in the city’s budget conversations.

At an April 26 CBJ Assembly Finance Committee meeting, people from around the community flooded City Hall to share their opinions on why the museum should remain. Among them was Marie Olson, who explained that she was born in Juneau more than 90 years ago and the City Museum helps keep the city’s history alive.

By an 8-1 vote at the end of the meeting, the committee members agreed to take the museum off the list of possible cuts. Other community services, such as the Eagle Valley Center and Mount Jumbo Gym, were also in the discussion to cut, but those survived as well.


• Contact reporter Alex McCarthy at 523-2271 or alex.mccarthy@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at @akmccarthy.


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