It's been a challenging winter for rural Alaska villages. High fuel prices, reduced income from fishing and a particularly cold winter have left many residents struggling to heat their homes and feed their families. But the state has taken action and work continues.
Through Gov. Sarah Palin's leadership and the Legislature's support, the motor fuel tax was suspended. Alaskans who qualified for the 2008 Permanent Fund Dividend also received a $1,200 resource rebate to help with the high cost of energy. In the lower Yukon River villages of Emmonak, Kotlik, Alakanuk and Nunam Iqua, this meant a total of more than $6.5 million flowed to residents in the region just before winter set in.
Palin also supported restoration of the municipal revenue sharing program, which provides $60 million to communities statewide. These funds are critical for rural communities. Roughly $500,000 went to these lower Yukon River villages and will likely be provided again.
Also, more than $51 million was included in the fiscal year 2009 budget for Power Cost Equalization, and $29 million went to heating assistance programs. An additional $4.8 million went to the Bulk Fuel Loan Fund (which 32 communities have used this year) and $5.5 million for the Bridge Fuel Loan Fund (which 24 communities have used this year).
A statewide energy plan was developed and the state invested $100 million for grants for renewable energy projects. Another $25 million is pending in this year's budget.
All of these efforts through the state budget process assisted rural Alaskans.
Current efforts include the mobilization of five state departments. The Department of Education has made multiple food shipments. Emmonak received 2,452 pounds, Mountain Village received 1,463 pounds and the Bristol Bay Native Association received more than 2,444 pounds. Additionally, the Department of Public Safety transported Food Bank donations of 4,700 pounds to Kotlik and 1,000 pounds to Kipnuk. The Department of Fish and Game extended the moose-hunting season to allow residents another opportunity to put food on their tables. The Department of Health and Social Services is conducting outreach and signing eligible individuals up for the available cash assistance programs. The governor and the lieutenant governor have personally visited the region to deliver food aid and provide moral support. They were welcomed with the traditional warmth and appreciation from community residents that rural Alaskans are known and respected for providing.
State employees from different departments, including myself, heard one strong message in the villages we visited: "We need more jobs." The unemployment rate in rural Alaska is too high. In response, the Alaska Department of Labor and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are looking into ways to increase earning opportunities.
Department of Labor staff members have been assisting job seekers in Western Alaska for months. To date, they have signed up more than 200 residents from Emmonak, Alakanuk, Kotlik and Nunam Iqua for work search and employment services through the state's online job bank to help match residents with available jobs and services.
The department will hold a career fair in Emmonak on April 20 with numerous employers, including Alaska State Troopers, Association of Village Council Presidents, Westward Seafoods, Golden Alaska, Ocean Beauty and Kwikpak Fisheries. In addition, Palin is advocating for budget amendments that could lead to increased earnings for residents from the summer and fall chum fisheries.
The administration also is working on a plan to coordinate fuel orders and deliveries with distributors and communities to achieve maximum efficiency for future fuel purchases. For example, if revenue sharing, the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program, and other payments to communities are distributed earlier in the year, orders can possibly be placed to distributors sooner and fuel delivered before rivers ice up and expensive fuel has to be flown in.
The governor, the administration and Alaskans care about rural Alaska and its residents. The state is deploying a wide variety of personnel and approaches to ease the hardships facing those living in rural communities. We are constantly exploring and reviewing options and will remain vigilant to find solutions.
John Moller, a lifelong Alaskan, is Gov. Sarah Palin's rural affairs advisor.