Alaska Marine Highway System employees in Juneau worry they'll have to look for new jobs or move to Ketchikan as early as this summer, though no one has said just why it makes sense to relocate the ferry system's administration.
The Alaska Department of Transportation, which has conducted an internal review of moving the AMHS administrative offices since last fall, refuses to release any information on the proposal to shift some 40 employees to Ketchikan. Potential savings have not been disclosed.
Transportation Commissioner Mike Barton refused to talk to reporters after a Thursday morning meeting with marine highway employees on the proposed move.
On Monday, the Ketchikan Gateway Borough sent a proposal to DOT to move the AMHS administrators to the largely vacant Ketchikan Pulp Co. administration building near Ward Cove.
DOT has given ferry system employees little information as to why or when the move would take place, and on Thursday Gov. Frank Murkowski said in a press conference that he supports the move.
"I think it's a substantial savings, and I think that's in the interest of the ferry system and in the interest of the state," Murkowski said.
The statement came just a few hours after Commissioner Barton told AMHS employees that the proposal was still just a proposal.
"There's no decisions made yet," Barton told a conference room full of AMHS employees. "We are still gathering information, looking at information, verifying information and assembling it. ... That's it. There's no hocus pocus going on. There's no hiding the ball. I know this is traumatic."
Talk of moving the ferry system began last September, but Thursday was the first time Barton addressed employees' concerns.
Earlier this week a DOT spokesperson said AMHS Director Tom Briggs made a recommendation to Murkowski and Barton, but neither official will release the information.
One employee at the meeting asked Barton if the recommendation was a public document on paper.
"I don't know," Barton said. "I think so. I don't remember. ... It's an internal working document."
The administration and DOT also have refused to give employees or the media cost estimates of the proposed move.
Murkowski, however, said the state would save in administrative costs in the end.
He said his administration's support for a new capitol in Juneau should garner Juneau's support for moving AMHS employees to Ketchikan.
"We support a new capitol building, so we hope Juneau will support the recognition that we can operate the ferry system better by having the operational activity centered in Ketchikan where we have the availability of the old pulp mill and all of the facilities associated with it," he said.
But officials still have given no financial justification for the move.
Murkowski also stated that other development projects such as the Juneau Access road project and the proposed Kensington mine at Berners Bay would create new jobs in Juneau.
"I think oftentimes Juneau takes for granted the contribution of resource development because we've had such a dependence on government," Murkowski said.
He said he did not believe that the move constituted "capital creep," a euphemism for state jobs leaving the capital city for other areas of the state.
Win Gruening, chairman of the Alaska Committee, a Juneau-based organization committed to keeping the capital and state jobs in Juneau, said he would favor any plan that would save the state money.
"We're generally in favor of making government more efficient," he said, but he noted that the administration has not proven that the plan would do that.
He said the group, which met last Wednesday, has not formally discussed the issue.
Meanwhile, AMHS employees are operating on rumors and media accounts of the proposal.
"I'm hearing all kinds of rumors," said AMHS General Manager Capt. George Capacci.
Capacci, who also has not been informed of the status of the proposal, said he is working to establish a Web site where employees can post questions about the move.
Marine Transportation Services Manager Jack Meyers asked how many employees have been asked for their input in the proposal at the Thursday meeting. About 20 employees lining the walls of the conference room sat quietly.
"My concern is for my staff and their families," Meyers said. "We haven't had any input into this decision process. It's frustrating to read in the press if it's true or not true that Ketchikan is preparing for us to come and we're being told that no decision had been made. It's just fear, anxiety, doubt, all of those sort of things, that bother people who work for me."
Meyers noted that support staff outside AMHS also are located in Juneau.
Before hearing the afternoon Murkowski press conference, Meyers, like many other AMHS employees, said he takes Barton at his word: "A lot of what we heard today is what a lot of us would have liked to have heard several weeks ago or at least before the newspaper articles and the radio interviews were heard."