Breaking a tie to declining timber harvests, checks containing a boost in federal funding for schools, roads and other projects were in the mail to many Alaska communities today.
The funding increases were outlined in last year's Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act and are designed to stabilize federal payments for schools and roads. Because the payments had been tied to timber harvests on federal land, funding had been declining in Southeast Alaska and elsewhere in the country.
Juneau will see funding increase from about $232,593 last year to $930,246 this year, according to the state. City Manager Dave Palmer said the funding will help keep taxes down.
"It represents money we don't have to raise by taxes," he said.
Palmer said he plans to recommend that some of the funding be used to pay for a helipad at Bartlett Regional Hospital that will serve outlying areas. The helipad was taken out of earlier hospital expansion plans because of funding shortfalls.
Last year, Alaska received $2.3 million in timber payments. This year, the state's communities, boroughs and school districts will get nearly $9.2 million. Much of it was sent out by the state today, according to Bill Rolfzen, a program administrator with the state Department of Community and Economic Development. More than 98 percent will go to towns in the Tongass National Forest, he said.
"It's no longer tied to income derived from the timber industry," he said. "The whole idea is to stabilize the payments."
Under the new formula, organized boroughs in Alaska will receive funding based on a 14-year historical average of timber receipts, he said.
Communities can use 80 percent to 85 percent of the funding for schools and roads, as they have in the past. Under the new legislation, they have the option of using the remaining 15 percent to 20 percent for special projects, according to Forest Service spokeswoman Sheela McLean.
As an example, a borough can directly accept the project money and use it for search and rescue, emergency services, easement purchases, community forestry or forest-related education purposes, according to the Forest Service. Or, by working with the Forest Service and an advisory committee, it can use the money for a broader ranger of projects covering roads and trails, watersheds, fisheries and wildlife habitat.
Most Southeast Alaska communities and boroughs have chosen to accept the money directly and will need to gather public comment before spending the project funds, Rolfzen said. Petersburg, Wrangell and Yakutat have elected to work with the Forest Service on special projects, he said.
In Metlakatla, the Annette Islands School District will receive $443,645, up from $99,627 last year. The already-budgeted funding helped ease cuts last spring, Superintendent Dave Dirksen said.
"We're running a bare-bones program now with that money," he said. "If it hadn't come in when it did, we wouldn't have been able to budget the way we budgeted."
Metlakatla's Louisiana-Pacific sawmill closed two years ago and enrollment has dropped from 450 to 300 students over the past five years, Dirksen said. The district also sought and received additional funding in this year's federal education bill, he said.
"We could not dismantle this district any further," he said.
Wrangell will get $704,621 under the new formula, up from last year's $158,233. Wrangell City Manager Bob Prunella said the increase will help local schools.
"It will help balance the budget and hopefully we can meet most of the obligations we have to the school district," he said. "Without it, things would be a lot tougher, especially in Wrangell. The cuts would come somewhere, I'm not exactly sure where."