The proposed move of the Bureau of Indian Affairs' regional office from Juneau to Anchorage may not be a forgone conclusion, as some had previously feared.
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The BIA held a meeting Thursday to speak with local Native leaders about the proposed relocation. Carl Artman, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs for the U.S. Department of the Interior, said the government is still considering the option of relocating the regional office to Anchorage but said nothing is set in stone.
"This is the beginning of a decision-making process," he said. "No decisions have been made. This is going to be incredibly important input into the process."
Regional Director Niles Cesar said last month the move appeared imminent and expected to begin the process by Sept. 30, the end of the current fiscal year.
Cesar said Thursday that if the move were approved then roughly half of the 45 employees in Juneau, including himself, would relocate to Anchorage.
A second meeting on the move will be held on Oct. 24 in Fairbanks. A final decision on the move will happen sometime after that, Artman said.
"This isn't something we're going to make a snap decision on," he said. "This is a very slow and deliberative process. The numbers will be refined, the justifications will be refined, and who knows where it will be in the end."
Randy Wanamaker, a Juneau Assembly member and Native leader, said Thursday's meeting provided some promising information.
"I am pleased that there is no decision to move the BIA regional office from Juneau at this time - that they are gathering information and intend to gather information from across the state from the various tribes and communities prior to making a decision," he said. "I think that's very important to Juneau."
The BIA is looking at how to provide more efficient and cost-effective services to the 231 federally recognized tribes in Alaska, Artman said.
"If you look at how the other regions are organized, the regional offices, there's an attempt to place the regional offices close to the majority of the tribes served by that region as possible," he said. "Same basic concept goes here, is how can we give the best services possible for the maximum number of tribes?"
The majority of the 231 tribes in Alaska are up north, with only 19 of those federally recognized tribes being from Southeast Alaska.
Although the initial move would be costly and likely reach into the millions of dollars, Artman said the long-term savings of operating closer to the majority of tribes needs to be considered.
"This isn't just a photograph," he said. "This is a movie and we have to understand how the entire plot will be impacted by this sort of a move. I think that there is a very solid argument to be made right now that I've seen in the numbers that there is going to be a long-term impact."
Wanamaker said it would be too costly to move the regional office from Juneau.
"The cost of transferring functions and providing new facilities in Anchorage will only work to the detriment of the tribes across the state overall," he said. "Because there is no appropriations to move anything, the cost of moving and building a new facility, or renting a new facility, will have to come from the dollars that are earmarked for providing services to tribes, so the tribes will receive even less for a number of years because of the cost providing for the transfer of existing employees."
Georgia Finau, self-governance director for Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, said she also has concerns about how moving costs would affect services.
"We haven't had an increase in our funding since 1995," she said. "So we're using the same level of funding from '95 now, and the cost of college has gone up. The cost of fuel has gone up. The cost of helping people with rent or housing has gone up."
The moving costs, originally estimated to be as high as $10 million, are still being revised and are likely to go through several revisions in the coming months, Cesar said.
"The numbers we're looking at today are several millions of dollars less than the numbers we were looking at," he said.
If the move were to happen, Artman said the BIA would not abandon Juneau.
"We will have some sort of a Southeast presence," he said. "What services, who those will be, what programs those will be, those are things that we're going to be taking a look at as well."
The BIA provides educational, social, housing, transportation and government services to Native tribes throughout the nation. The region has a roughly $110 million annual budget and nearly 130 employees in Alaska.
Eric Morrison can bereached at 523-2269 at email@example.com.