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Bracing for the move

Workers wrestle with whether to relocate to Ketchikan with the state ferry system

Posted: Thursday, March 25, 2004

Managing vessel construction for the state ferry system is the best job Ira Rosen has ever had. Now he'll have to choose between it and his home.

Rosen is among the 44 Alaska Marine Highway System employees who must decide whether they'll move with the ferry headquarters this summer when it relocates to Ketchikan. The Department of Transportation announced the move March 8, saying it would save the state money.

"We have a pretty busy life," Rosen said. "For us, the decision to move or not to move would be an excruciating one."

The hard numbers say the move to Ketchikan in the name of efficiency will cost Juneau 44 incomes and taxpayers, siphoning students and their state funding from the schools. Lost in the cost-benefit analysis are the people behind the jobs and their place in the community. They are the capital city's human capital.

"These are our families. They're our friends. They're our neighbors," Juneau Mayor Bruce Botelho told the House State Affairs committee last week. "These are the Little League coaches in our communities. They're the Sunday school teachers. They're the volunteer board members of the hundreds of volunteer organizations that we have in this community, the people who individually and collectively make Juneau a richer place to live."

Rosen, 54, has worked for the state Department of Transportation for 28 years, nine as a vessel construction manager for the marine highway. He said he fully intended to finish his career with the state.

"There are some days I just can't wait to get to work," Rosen said. "It's challenging. It's exciting. The vessel engineering section employees are true professionals, literally some of the best in the world at what they do."

Rosen is also heavily involved in the community. He has worked as an adjunct professor at the University of Alaska Southeast for about four years, teaching a course in project management. He's a member of the Juneau Shotokan Karate Club and the Valley Toastmasters Club. He and his wife of 19 years, Ann, 47, teach cycling classes twice a week at the Alaska Club in the Mendenhall Valley.

He said he still hasn't decided if he will make the move to Ketchikan, and is hoping Gov. Frank Murkowski and the department will reverse the decision to move his job.

"I keep hoping we won't have to make that decision," he said. "No one in my family would want to go."

The Rosens' son, Max, 15, is a sophomore at Juneau-Douglas High School and their daughter, Alexandria, 18, is attending the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. Ann works as a ramp agent for Alaska Airlines.

The question of whether to move has been a running theme in the Rosens' lives since the announcement.

"There's a certain amount of kidding," Rosen said about friends and co-workers regularly posing the question. "Eventually the humor is going to come out of it, when we're faced with making the decision of whether or not to move."

He said it could drive him into early retirement, a choice that's not an option for many at the marine highway.

Some marine highway system workers say they will not make the move and that there are no advantages to relocating to Ketchikan. A few said they are already looking for work elsewhere. And others said they haven't decided what to do yet.

The engineers, captains, designers and operations managers that make up the administrative side of the ferry system are highly qualified professionals that can be difficult to find. It often takes months-long nationwide searches to fill the positions when they become vacant.

Jim Thilenius, 38, a graduate of Juneau-Douglas High School in 1984, is the ferry system's newest vessel construction manager. He moved back to Juneau from San Diego in July with his wife, Sherry, 38, and 2-year-old daughter, Claire.

Due to his short time with the ferry system, Thilenius faces the prospect of paying back up to $15,000 to the state in moving costs if he chooses not to go to Ketchikan.

A clause in his employment contract says if he leaves the job within two years he must repay a prorated amount of the moving costs he was given when accepting the job.

"I don't know that this is true or not, but it would be a real bummer to have to turn in a letter of resignation and have to give them a check for $15,000 with it," he said. "I'd rather spend that $15,000 in Juneau."

Thilenius, a graduate of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy, said he's been trying for the last 15 years to find a marine job in Alaska to be closer to his parents, who live in Juneau.

"At this point in their life they are very independent, but that probably will not remain so," Thilenius said. "It would be a difficult thing for me to (care for them) in San Diego."

Since November, Thilenius has worked in Ketchikan on a federally funded overhaul of the state ferry Matanuska. He noted that his salary and per diem costs are paid by the federal government, not the state.

He said he's enjoyed Ketchikan but has no interest in living there.

"On the other side of the coin, marine trade jobs in Juneau are hard to come by," he said. "I've got a house, I've got a mortgage and I've got to have a job."

He said that although he's only been with the state for about nine months he enjoys his work with the ferry system.

"I like AMHS," he said. "My intention when I came here was I don't want to move any time soon. "We've got a nice house in Juneau. It's the first time in my life I've been able to have a workshop in my house and I haven't had a chance yet to unpack my tools."

Marcia Etheridge, 54, an administrative operations manager for the ferry system, has lived in Juneau since she was a kid. Etheridge, who is considering retirement, said she and her husband, Bob, 59, were planning on selling their home soon and living their dream.

"Our whole plan was to retire this summer and buy a motor home and just be footloose," she said.

But now she fears the move could depress the value of homes in Juneau if many are put on the market at once.

"Right now it is good but I don't know how long that will last," she said, noting that if housing prices decline in Juneau it might force her to stay with her state job longer. That could mean moving to Ketchikan - possibly without her family.

Considering that she's close to retiring, Etheridge said it could be difficult to find another job.

She said her husband and family are still in shock over the move.

"Their thoughts are disbelief," she said. "They still think it won't happen."



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