Session move, tourism lead governmental news

Posted: Monday, December 31, 2001

Among the top governmental news events in Juneau this year was a renewed effort to move legislative sessions out of Juneau, which local leaders called a de facto capital move attempt.

Other local news included new tourism planning, transportation controversies, a battle with bears and changes on the Juneau Assembly.

Legislative movers, including a leader of the Alaskan Independence Party, announced their intentions in the spring.

An application was filed for a ballot measure to move legislative sessions to the Matanuska-Susistna Borough. Sponsors recently said they have enough signatures to put the question to voters next year. The measure would move the legislative session to the Mat-Su Borough by 2005 or to Anchorage temporarily if suitable facilities were not available in the Mat Su.

The Alaska Committee, which has fought previous move efforts, called the measure a step toward a full capital move.

"This takes us down the trail of Pac-Man politics: It's who's going to gobble up whom," said Democratic Sen. Kim Elton after the move plan became public.

In other local news of 2001, the Legislature appropriated $9 million to renovate Juneau-Douglas High School, ending a two-year quest by civic leaders to get state funding for a portion of the $17 million project. Construction is scheduled to start in summer of 2002. Locals are still hoping the state will pay for part of the cost of a proposed $50 million high school in the Mendenhall Valley.

For the city and the U.S. Forest Service, it was a year of data-gathering and research about tourism and flightseeing noise.

The city released a study in September that suggested alternate heliports be placed at Montana Creek and Dupont, south of Thane. By moving all flightseeing operations to the new heliports, the number homes under helicopter tour flightpaths would drop from 6,437 to zero, although some noise would still be audible, consultants said.

The Assembly plans two public hearings in January about the heliport study with public comments due Jan. 25.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service issued a draft environmental impact statement that will be used to set the number of helicopter landings on Juneau's Icefield for the next five years.

The agency offered alternatives ranging from a 10 percent increase a year for the next five years to decreasing landings 9 percent annually. A decision is expected in late January, the agency said.

Meanwhile, Juneau residents participated in three Internet polls about tourism this fall, registering mixed opinions about flightseeing noise, cruise ship passenger numbers and destination travelers. The surveys were part of the city's developing long-range tourism plan.

A cruise ship pollution controversy came to apparent resolution with the Legislature's approval, in special session, of the first state law in the nation regulating the industry.

A collaboration among state and federal regulators, industry officials and citizen activists led to wastewater tests showing that discharges of sink and shower water contained fecal matter equivalent to raw sewage. The new law includes a pollution limit for so-called graywater that is the first such standard ever adopted by any government in the world.

Individual companies continue to experiment with pollution-control technologies. For example, Princess Cruises broke new ground by setting up shoreside power for its ships, eliminating air emissions when docked.

Although there was growing concern after Sept. 11 about declining tourism in Juneau, the area received some hopeful economic news: Coeur Alaska Inc. announced in November that it had restructured its plans for the Kensington mine, a multi-metal mine north of Berners Bay, to meet environmental objections and reduce costs.

Opening Kensington mine would create 325 jobs at the peak of construction, 225 jobs during operation and 180 support jobs, said Rick Richins, senior vice president of Coeur.

Urban bears and garbage also were part of the news this year, partly propelled by the death of a black bear and her cub in June.

The day after police shot the mother in a Mendenhall Valley neighborhood, the state Department of Fish and Game euthanized the orphaned cub. In response, Juneau City Manager Dave Palmer directed the Juneau Police Department to shoot bears only if they were threatening people.

In May, the Juneau Assembly passed an ordinance with new garbage restrictions designed to protect bears. Based on recommendations made by the Mayor's Ad Hoc Urban Bear Committee, Juneau residents could no longer leave garbage out overnight unless it was in a bear-resistant container.

A $3.1 million city budget surplus in May allowed the Assembly to decrease property taxes by a half-mill, provide half-hour bus service, and complete the funding needed for a new ice rink at Savikko Park.

The Assembly closed a chapter at the Mendenhall Wastewater Treatment Plant in July when it decided to pick up former wastewater utility superintendent Andy Bronson's legal bills. Bronson pleaded guilty to two counts of violating the federal Clean Water Act after he was caught on a hidden camera tampering with effluent samples in 1998. Under a plea agreement, he was required to pay a $10,000 fine and serve six months of home detention in Arizona.

October brought new members Jeannie Johnson and Randy Wanamaker to the Juneau Assembly in an election characterized by low turnout. Incumbent Jim Powell reclaimed his seat, while John MacKinnon and Cathy Mu-oz didn't seek re-election.

With a change in membership, the Assembly flipped position on a controversial land purchase in the Mendenhall Valley. While the old Assembly voted to buy 2.3 acres from Faith Lutheran Church for a new library, the new Assembly backed out of the purchase. The city is now evaluating whether the new library can be combined with proposed recreation center in the Dimond Park complex.

In other work, the Assembly approved an ordinance that will ban smoking in most offices and many restaurants starting Jan. 1. And it passed the Area Wide Transportation Plan, which provides a framework for local transportation projects for the next 20 years.

In school news, it was a year for contract renegotiations - and raises - although not without controversy. A $650,000 boost in state funding this year helped pay for higher salaries, but some people said it should have gone to hire more teachers.

Teachers reluctantly accepted a complicated two-year contract that included pay increases of at least 4.5 percent in the first year and 4 percent on average in the second year. The raises for the two years combined were worth about $1.3 million. School principals and central office administrators also received contracts with bonuses or higher pay.

New facilities were the big news at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau. A two-story, 22,000-square-foot classroom addition to the Egan Library is well under way, and fund-raising is going strong for a $525,000 outdoor amphitheater.

Regional transportation projects were stalled, revived or advanced in a climate of uncertainty and controversy.

The road-vs.-ferry debate about improving Juneau access was revived due to a statewide opinion poll apparently showing support for the ballot initiative to move legislative sessions.

Mayor Smith asked Gov. Tony Knowles to finish the environmental impact statement on Juneau access that the governor had pulled the plug on in 2000. He declined.

Meanwhile, the state's Southeast Transportation Plan met resistance through the year.

The plan, based on the use of fast ferries to make day trips on a regular schedule, was viewed skeptically in the Legislature, which mostly failed to act on a request for additional federal funds to finance three more fast ferries.

The first fast ferry, a Sitka-Juneau dayboat for which federal funds already have been appropriated, fell behind schedule when the only bidder submitted a proposal that was judged "nonresponsive" to the state's specifications. On Dec. 20, the state announced that the new low bidder is Derecktor Shipyards of New York, which said it would build two vessels for $67.9 million. The Sitka-based vessel and another one slated for Prince William Sound now are projected to come online in the spring of 2004.

Compiled from reports by Empire staff.

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