Budget change slashes Marine Exchange funds

Juneau-based nonprofit tracks vessels in state's busiest waterways

Posted: Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The cruise ship Empress of the North struck a rock west of Juneau in 2007, sending public and private vessels racing to help. But few ships could carry its 281 passengers and crew.

Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

The state ferry Columbia was out of radio contact at the time, on the other side of Admiralty Island. But Coast Guard officers coordinating the rescue from Juneau tracked its position through the Marine Exchange, and quickly diverted it to the scene.

The Columbia collected the passengers from the fleet of fishing, tug, tour and rescue vessels and brought them safely to Auke Bay.

Gov. Sarah Palin has proposed cutting state funding for the Marine Exchange, the Juneau-based nonprofit that operates vessel tracking stations in the state's busiest waterways. In amendments to her 2010 budget proposal, Palin reduced the proposal from $650,000 in funding to zero.

The funding was for a combination of operating costs and building new stations, such as in the Arctic, where shipping is growing.

"We expected a reduction, not a total wipeout," said Capt. Ed Page, executive director of the Marine Exchange.

Palin's budget director, Karen Rehfeld, said the Marine Exchange provides a valued service, but it is not part of state government.

"A lot of things had to be reduced, given the revenue picture," she said.

The Marine Exchange is currently funded by commercial marine operations, federal and state governments.

"They're the third leg of a three-legged stool," Page said. "We took one leg out of the stool."

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, said he was disappointed in Palin's proposal.

"That program gets right to the heart of safety at sea - the state ferries use it, the cruise ships use it," Elton said.

Fishing and shipping companies use it to track their fleets, while the Coast Guard uses it for marine enforcement purposes. In emergencies, it can be used to coordinate response, as with the Columbia. In a worst-case scenario, it can pinpoint a missing vessel's last known location.

Page said his service helps those operating on the water manage their businesses better.

"We've literally saved millions of dollars for the Alaska maritime industry with some of the things we've done," he said.

Elton said the Marine Exchange is a support for Alaska businesses, and makes doing business in Alaska less costly.

"That's a high priority, safety at sea and improving the commercial climate," he said. "Almost everything we consume as a state comes up on the marine lines."

Palin's earlier spending proposal had called for using money raised under the cruise ship gambling tax to fund the Marine Exchange. Now, that money will be treated like general fund money, Rehfeld said.

Page said the budget cut appears to be about one-third to 40 percent of the budget next year.

Elton said he would seek to restore the money in the legislative budget process.

If that can't be done, Page said he would likely make up the lost money by suspending work on expansions to new locations, seeing if they could find cheaper suppliers in the Lower 48, and hold off on all but he most crucial repairs.

Getting to some of the Marine Exchange's remote equipment can be expensive.

The Marine Exchange's 24-hour operations center, an important part of its service, will most likely be maintained, Page said.

"A lot of these incidents happen in the middle of the night," he explained.

But Page said he understands the state's difficult budget situation.

"I've got a bias, thinking that maritime safety and environmental protection are paramount, but I know there are a lot of other things the state has to deal with," he said. "I just wish they could have saved some money elsewhere."

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