Posted: Friday, June 13, 2003

Bridge project garners Young a Golden Fleece

JUNEAU - A Washington, D.C., watchdog group has given U.S. Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican, a Golden Fleece Award for pushing a Ketchikan bridge project the group calls a boondoggle.

The group Taxpayers for Common Sense said the project to link Ketchikan with Gravina Island could cost taxpayers for years to come.

"It exemplifies the rampant problem of pork barrel spending in the federal government," said Shannon Collier, a policy analyst for the group.

Gravina Island, where Ketchikan's airport is located, is reached by ferry now. Young, who is chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is seeking federal funding for the $230 million bridge project.

So far he and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, also an Alaska Republican, have steered about $22 million in federal money toward engineering, environmental review and other preliminary work.

Ketchikan Gateway Borough Mayor Mike Salazar disagrees that the project is a waste of money.

"Ketchikan can't even get to the airport without riding on a ferry," Salazar said. "There's land over there that belongs to the borough, belongs to the state, belongs to the mental health trust, and it can't be developed very well without having access to it."

The project is actually two bridges, one connecting Ketchikan to Pennock Island and another connecting Pennock to Gravina Island. The state's $230 million price tag also includes six miles of road and a parking garage, said Pat Kemp, an engineer with the state Department of Transportation and Public Facilities.

Steve Hansen, a spokesman for Young, said the criticism won't prompt Alaska's only congressman to drop his support for the project.

"The people of Ketchikan have been working for years to have a bridge to link them to the island," Hansen said. "The ferry system is ineffective. They need the bridge to also expand their land base to generate new economic development."

Nobel Prize winner comes to UAA

ANCHORAGE - Vernon Smith, co-winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in economics, has come to the University of Alaska Anchorage as a visiting scholar.

Smith, a professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., is the first to occupy the Rasmuson Chair in Economics, said Diane Kaplan, Rasmuson Foundation president. Alaska banker and philanthropist Elmer Rasmuson gave the university $5 million for the position, hoping to stimulate a world-class economics department.

Smith, 76, shared the Nobel Prize with Princeton University economics professor Daniel Kahneman. Smith is credited with pioneering experimental economics in the mid-1950s. He was the first to test market theories on real people in a laboratory, researching buying and selling patterns.

The academy singled out his use of "wind-tunnel tests," where trials of new, alternative market designs are done in the laboratory before being implemented.

UAA economics associate professor Paul Johnson said Smith's research background could provide fresh perspectives on problems Alaska has been tossing around for decades.

Grand jury indicts Big Lake pastor

ANCHORAGE - A Big Lake pastor who shot and killed two intruders at his church was indicted Thursday on manslaughter and criminally negligent homicide charges.

The Palmer grand jury indicted the Rev. Phillip Mielke, 44, in the deaths of Christopher Lee Palmer, 31, and Francis Marion Jones IV, 23. Mielke's attorneys were to produce him by 8:30 a.m. today, said Palmer District Attorney Roman Kalytiak.

Charging documents reveal that Mielke fired four times after at least one of the intruders was running from the building and attempting to drive away. There was no evidence Palmer or Jones brandished any weapons in the church, prosecutors said.

Mielke called troopers immediately after the shooting and said he was awakened by a baby monitor he had set up in the church. He dressed and armed himself with a .44-Magnum revolver.

He told troopers he saw a parked car that was running but had no one in it. He said a side door of the sanctuary was damaged and open. The lights flashed on and off and he heard people running up the stairs.

He yelled for them to stop, they did not, and as they approached the top of the stairs near the open side door, he fired.

After one intruder got up and ran to the parked car, Mielke shot through a window at the fleeing man until his gun was empty. He told the interviewing trooper that he was "scared to death."

Palmer was found dead in the ditch of a roadway near the church. He was wearing gloves and a pouch containing tools was attached to his belt. Toxicology reports indicated he had controlled substances in his body.

Homer pulls out of intertie plan

ANCHORAGE - The Homer Electric Association has dropped its support for a new intertie transmission line between Kenai and Anchorage in what could be a lethal blow to the $119 million project.

The powerline is the last of the big energy projects still on the state's drawing board from the oil-rich days of the 1980s. The state-subsidized project, also known as the Southern Intertie, kept the backing of most Railbelt utilities until recently.

The project ran into fiscal trouble this spring. A state decision to take back $28.5 million in interest built up on a 1993 legislative construction grant meant more of the cost would have to be shouldered by the utilities.

Murkowski signs bill for salmon processors

JUNEAU - Gov. Frank Murkowski has signed a bill providing a state tax break for salmon processors that invest in certain types of new equipment.

House Bill 90 allows up to a 50 percent credit on a company's fisheries business taxes for investments in equipment if it adds value to the salmon processed or creates a product out of salmon-processing waste.

The tax credits will be allowed on investments made between Jan. 1, 2003, and Dec. 31, 2005.

Sen. Gary Stevens, a Kodiak Republican, sponsored the bill, which Murkowski signed Tuesday. He said it will help Alaska's struggling salmon industry, which has faced stiff competition from farmed salmon from other countries. The state Department of Revenue said it could not estimate how much the tax break would cost the state without knowing how many people would apply.

The state estimated it would collect $5.6 million in fisheries business taxes in fiscal year 2003, which ends June 30. Half of that money is sent to municipalities.

The tax credit would come from the state's share of tax collections only, and would not affect the amount going to municipalities.

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