Some Yakutat residents to lose power

Struggling utility curtails power to past-due clients who have contributed to its $250,000 debt

Posted: Friday, January 16, 2004

Yakutat's city manager said he doesn't know how many customers will be without power today.

But a grandmother in the isolated coastal community, about 225 miles northwest of Juneau, said Thursday she was sure she would be among them.

"It's devastating - and beyond that," Amber Mallott said.

City Manager Steve Henry said notices were sent out to 58 households and businesses in December, advising they would lose electrical service if they didn't agree to a payment plan to settle past-due bills. He said the city-owned-and-operated utility serves about 360 meters.

Henry explained that the power utility is $245,980 in debt. Previous verbal agreements and written agreements with past-due customers have not helped. Going down the list of customers who were sent the shut-off notices, he noted one owed more than $10,000.

"If we don't have the money to buy diesel fuel, we won't be able to provide power to the community," Henry said. "You reach a point where you're not going to be able to buy fuel to run the generators."

Mallott said she can't afford to pay $1,200 by today and $1,200 a month in the future until she pays what she owes. She gets $96 a week through unemployment benefits, and she said a soon-to-be-ex-husband who should be responsible for half the bill hasn't contributed.

Mallott said she didn't know where she would go with her 17-year-old daughter, who has a 2-week old daughter that needs to be fed with the help of an electric breast pump.

Yakutat has about 725 residents.

The customers who were notified they could have their power shut off were at least 60 days overdue, Henry said. In some cases, they were years behind in their payments, he added.

Payments had to be made Thursday. The utilities manager was out helping people sign agreements, Henry said. He expected less than 58 customers to be left without power.

"It's causing quite a commotion here in Yakutat," he said. He also said the problem has been developing for years.

Dave Beattie, who lives across the street from Mallott, said he was more fortunate than others. He borrowed money from a friend and dipped into his children's saving accounts from their Alaska Permanent Fund dividends.

"That's something we promised we would never do," he said.

Next month, he said, he will be ready with the help of an unemployment check. He expects to be able to return to work on a state-funded, airport-renovation project. Monthly electric bills run between $250 and $300, he said.

One of the problems in Yakutat is the large percentage of people who are out of work, he said.

The Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development listed the Borough of Yakutat unemployment rate at 12.5 percent, with a labor force of 305 people, in November 2003. In January 2003, the official unemployment rate was 17.7 percent. Last February, it was 23.9 percent.

Beattie said two logging companies have left since the 1990s and fishing isn't bringing in as much money.

Henry agreed that unemployment is high, particularly in the winter. He said recent opportunities in commercial fishing have been limited, and sport-fishing lodges close down in the winter.

Mallott said she doesn't have a wood-burning stove. Without electricity, "there goes your cooking. There goes your heat." Lacking power for the pump, they won't be able to breast-feed the baby.

"To cut people off when the temperature's around 10 degrees, there goes the ability to get water," Beattie said, noting that pipes would freeze.

Friends will help each other, Beattie said, and some families will be doubling up. He said he will be part of a crew that will split and deliver firewood for people using wood-burning stoves.

• Tony Carroll can be reached at tony.carroll@juneauempire.com.



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