ANCHORAGE - Gov. Sarah Palin told residents in the village of New Stuyahok over the weekend that she hopes to create a permanent municipal aid program.
It was Palin's second visit this year to the Southwest Alaska village, where there were five alcohol-related deaths in 2006.
Villagers turned to alcohol because a struggling economy marked by high fuel costs, low fish prices and few jobs left them little hope, Palin told the Anchorage Daily News after visiting the community of 470 on Saturday.
Public Safety Commissioner Walt Monegan, who joined Palin, told residents he is working on legislation that, if passed, would raise wages for village public safety officers. The pay has been criticized as being so low it turns away applicants.
Most speakers didn't request government help, but Palin said it's clear the state needs to participate in creating economic opportunities.
More than 100 communities have taken advantage of local option laws to ban alcohol or, like New Stuyahok, to ban the sale of alcohol. Excessive drinking, however, remains a problem throughout rural Alaska and has been blamed for contributing to high rates of sexual assault, suicide and other social ills. Unemployment also is high.
"What could stop a person from drinking is a good job," Palin said. "Our administration has to be about fostering opportunities that create good jobs that will lead people to have hope in rural and urban Alaska."
More than 200 people attended the two-hour meeting in the high school gymnasium, according to Mayor Randy Hastings.
The village desperately needs a public safety building with a heated fire hall, Hastings told the governor. He said the lack of heat in the current building makes the fire truck useless in the winter, when water stored in the tank freezes. Some residents have said lack of an operable fire truck was to blame for two deaths last spring, when villagers tried to fight a fire with a bucket brigade and snow.
Hastings said he's glad state lawmakers boosted state aid to villages, which will increase New Stuyahok's share from $40,000 to $97,000. But it won't be enough, with diesel fuel for heating city buildings and homes at $4.80 gallon, and gas at $5.65 a gallon.
Other villages suffering the same problems have asked for a permanent municipal aid program, often called revenue sharing.
Palin said she and her staff are looking into it.
Municipal aid has been pieced together yearly since former Gov. Frank Murkowski cut eliminated the state's revenue sharing program in 2003. This year, Palin called for a one-year infusion of $48 million that was approved by the Legislature.
One concept Palin is considering would tap a percentage of the state's natural resource revenues. The idea was pushed this legislative session by municipalities but didn't pass.
"I want our state resource wealth trickled to communities, not used to create larger state government," Palin said.
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