Borough Asks Residents How To Classify State Land Entitlements

The state of Alaska has some land to sign off to the Kenai Peninsula Borough. But before the transactions are finalized, residents need to take a look at the maps and weigh in on how the land should be designated by the Borough, if at all.

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The land transfer is part of the Mandatory Borough Act of 1964 and the Municipal Entitlement Act of 1978. The first entitlement lands were handed over in 1966 and of the more than 155,000 acres destined to the Borough, 28,000 still need to be processed. The first step is figuring out what people want done with this land, which can be done in an online survey at the Borough’s website.

There are parcels all across the Peninsula, from Seldovia to Tyonek. And with the Borough’s online parcel viewer, you can zoom in and see what that plot is already designated for, and from there fill out the survey.

“When you zoom in…what you see on the map are these areas shaded in pink,” explained Marcus Mueller, Land Management Officer for the Borough as he walked me through the process of filling out the online survey, which asks how the land should be managed to support a variety of uses.

“That’s going to be the basis for helping us to identify whether it’s appropriate for the Borough to pursue those lands, or if we should leave the state to retain management of those lands,” Mueller said. ”And you’ll see a whole host of various land uses that people can choose from that best fit their ideas for how that piece of public land should be managed.”

There are a handful of plots around Soldotna and Nikiski and Kenai, but the majority are located in more remote areas of the Borough; across Kachemak Bay and near Seward and Resurrection Bay and across the Inlet. After the survey has closed on February 28th, Mueller says that information will be put together in a final plan that will go through the usual public hearing process, with a resolution before the Assembly in early April, and he says the public will have more opportunities to voice their opinions in public hearings with the planning commission.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


CPH Growing, Adopting Affordable Care Act Measures

The effects of legislation and negotiations in Washington about health care and spending are being felt by the medical community on the Kenai Peninsula.

In a report to the Borough Assembly this week, Central Peninsula Hospital CEO Rick Davis discussed how and to what degree some federal measures are hitting home, beginning with fallout from the ‘Fiscal Cliff’ negotiations that were temporarily settled on New Year’s Day.

“The fix that happened on the First is going to be about a $2.6 million hit to the hospital over the next year,” Davis said.

Responsible for that $2.6 million is the cancellation of a rural payment assistance program for small hospitals, called Transitional Outpatient Payments, or TOPs. In addition to those cuts, Davis says some payments for outpatient lab tests were also not extended.

But it’s not all bad news.

This year, more of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act will go into effect. With its general emphasis on hospital reimbursement focused on patient care outcome and quality rather than the volume of services performed, Davis said CPH will actually see an increase in payments held back from Medicare of 132%.

“So, we had 1% of our our Medicare payments held back last year and we’ll get back 1.3% of our Medicare payments, so we are the top hospital in the state as far as our performance in those quality measures,” Davis said.

These federal health care reforms are coming as CPH is expanding both its service areas and footprint. A new radiation oncology unit is set to open in 2014 and another construction project, a new $37.5 million medical office building is also in the works.

“We’ll be able to expand our spine center, provide more rehab and physical therapy services and add a lot of administrative space,” Davis said, adding the laundry facilities and administrative offices are severely dated. “Administration is in kind of a bad spot, so we’re going to have some space in the basement to go when the new office is finished,” he said.

The first public hearing for the Borough ordinance that would appropriate $3.3 million for design services on the project is scheduled for February 5th. If the Borough Assembly gives its approval, construction is anticipated to be done in 2015.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


T-200 Back On Track For 2013

Just two weeks remain until the start of this year’s Tustemena 200 and the field of forty mushing teams is nearly set. After a few off years, the Iditarod and Yukon Quest qualifying race is back on track with some new sponsors and a bigger purse.

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Last year we saw a stripped down version of the Tustemena 200. With a purse of just $10,000 and no Tustemena 100, the event’s future looked bleak. But for the 29th annual running, things are looking a bit brighter. The T-100 is back after a year off to save some overhead costs in 2012 and thanks to corporate sponsorship from Apache and others, the purse size is back to $25,000, paying out to the top ten finishers with Tesoro sponsoring gifts for the remaining competitors who finish in the top half. Those commitments, plus the help of residents along the trail, have helped fill out this year’s lineup of forty racers, which, as of Thursday had just one open spot left.

“We had some good financial support from a lot of our sponsors this year, so that really brought us back to where we’ve been in the past,” said Tami Murray, Race Director for the T-200.

“And I’ve gotten a lot of support from a lot of the locals; from Soldotna down to Clam Gulch who are going to house some of the musher who are coming into town, so that helps with them expense-wise to make the trip down here,” she said.

With the financial side of things secured, weather was the only wildcard for 2013. Despite several rounds of snow, rain, melt, rain, freezing and on and on, Murray says the build teams she relies on to construct the trail to Homer have been able to get a suitable track laid in.

“It’s going to be a fast trail this year with all the melt and the freeze which has really firmed up the track, but…our trail guys, Kevin (Fulton) and Tinker (Gary Anders) are out there daily,” Murray said adding that cancellations for other races around the state have helped out this year.

The Tustemena 200 Sled Dog Race starts Saturday, February 4th at mile 112 of the Sterling highway in Kasilof. Teams will also be checking in and resting at McNeil Elementary School in Homer sometime Saturday night. Most of the racers will complete the 200 miles by Sunday afternoon ahead of the banquet on Monday in Soldotna. And if you’d like to volunteer, there are meetings this Friday at 6pm at Tustumena Elementary and another in Homer Sunday afternoon at three at Captains Coffee.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


District Makes Last Best Offer In Teacher Contract Negotiations

The District has been in negotiations with the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Support Association for more than a year on new employee contracts that will cover salary increases and health benefit changes for the next three years and on Wednesday announced its last best offer to the associations.

In December, an arbitrator’s decision was released after the two sides failed to come to an agreement and on Tuesday, negotiators resumed collective bargaining. The district has adopted the arbitrator’s recommendation of a two-percent salary increase over the length of the contract.

On health care, the District also adopted the arbitrator’s recommendation. The Associations had sought to remove the current 50/50 split on health care costs above available reserves and eventually get to a ratio where the District picks up 85% of that cost and employees take the remaining 15%. The District’s plan does remove the 50/50 split and establishes the 85/15 ratio by the final year of the contract. In return the District has requested that any changes in health care coverage be mutually agreed upon by both the District and the Association’s Heath Care Committee.

-Staff Report-


Cooper Landing By Pass Coming in….2020. Maybe.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly got an update on a long-awaited expansion project on the Sterling Highway at its meeting this week. The Cooper Landing By-Pass has been in the planning stages for years, but some real first steps are scheduled to take place in 2013.

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The 15 miles of Sterling Highway around Cooper Landing look much the way they did in the 40’s when a road first came through. Narrow, winding, blind corners. Overall, just a real cramped and dangerous stretch of road that hugs the banks of the Kenai River. Plans for a by-pass through the area have been swirling for years, but the first official steps toward a major expansion project are finally going forward this year.

Addressing the Borough Assembly at its meeting Tuesday, Department of Transportation consultant John McPherson explained the purpose for the by-pass is to upgrade the Sterling Highway between mile markers 45 and 60 to modern standards.

This project has been kicked around for more than 30 years and, according to the DOT’s projected timeline still won’t be completed until 2020. Currently, there are four plans up for consideration. They range from $225 million to $270 million dollars and would each see a new path further away from the Kenai River, anywhere from four to nine miles, depending on the plan. And all four proposals share two common features; a new bridge over Juneau Creek north of Cooper Landing and a projected decrease in accidents of 65%.

In order to receive federal funding for the project, engineers and developers are currently putting together a draft environmental impact statement which will be finished this year before being held for agency reviews and public hearings in 2014. Over the past six months, McPherson says, plans have grown to include one more alternative route and figure out control over access to any new portions of the road.

“Controlling access is really a part of remedying the kinds of problems that we see on the existing Sterling Highway,” McPherson said. “The driveways and the side streets and all those conflict points on the new alignment we would be controlling, so that hopefully the proliferation of driveways and side streets don’t grow over time and create a similar problem as we have today,” he said.

Having tight control over access points through the 15 mile stretch will function essentially like zoning laws; limiting where points of access can be constructed and by whom, which means bridges and over passes will be constructed to access Borough areas.

The environmental impact study will be finished this year before the plan goes before the public for review. Then the Federal Highway Administration will have final say on the route and the entire project depends, of course, on whether funding from the state or the federal government will be made available.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Collective Bargaining For Teacher Contracts Set To Resume

Representatives from the Kenai Peninsula Education Association and Education Support Association made one last call to action from the School Board at its meeting last week before collective bargaining resumes.

Addressing the Board, KPEA President Ladawn Druce said the teachers she represents want a new contract that reflects their value in the community.

“You as Board members obviously care about public education in this district, or you would not dedicate your time and service to doing what you do. Please, show these educators that you value their time and talents and direct the district (and) administration to settle our contract in a manner that is worthy of these exceptional employees,” Druce said.

The District and the Associations have been in contract negotiations for a full year, with the biggest obstacles to an agreement being salary schedules and health care costs.  In December, arbitrator Kathryn Whalen gave her opinion on the unsettled contract matters. She calls for the District to pick up more of employees health care costs over the three years of the contract, which ends in 2015. By that time, the District will be responsible for 85% of health care costs that exceed available reserves.

Whalen’s decision on salary increases over the next three years is a compromise between the offers from the District and the Association. Based on the Department of Labor’s projected increase in the Consumer Price Index for the Anchorage area, the Associations are calling for a 2.5% increase for fiscal year 2013 and a 2.8% increase the following year. The District’s counter offer was a flat 1% increase over the course of the contract, while the arbitrator called for a 2% increase.

Collective bargaining is set to resume Tuesday.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Move To Repeal Fish Stream Protection Rules Hits A Snag

Tuesday’s meeting of the Borough Assembly failed to bring any resolution to the ongoing debate over anadromous streams protection on the Kenai Peninsula. Assembly member Kelly Wolf withdrew his ordinance to repeal provisions of the Borough code that would have extended those protections to all bodies of water listed in a state catalog of anadromous streams. Despite a postponement in implementing the rules and the establishment of a Task Force charged with fixing perceived problems with the measure, the call for its full repeal is still being made.

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Following another round of public testimony, both for and against the now-infamous 2011-12 anadromous streams ordinance, Borough Mayor Mike Navarre was compelled to clear the air. Again.

The ordinance hasn’t been implemented on the east side of Cook Inlet and won’t be until the Task Force has delivered recommendations to the Assembly and those recommendations go through a public hearing process. At that time, likely several months from now, the Assembly will vote on an amended streams ordinance.

“I’ve heard a lot of people saying ‘you need to do this now, you need to do this now’…Public bodies can’t do things that way,” Navarre said. “You have to bring something before (the Assembly) and then there has to be the public hearing process that allows the public their input,” he said.

The arguments against the ordinance haven’t really changed in the six months since its passage, nor has Navarre’s explanation of the process to review and possibly amend it. Opponents say it infringes on the rights of private property owners. Navarre has said the purpose of the Task Force is to find ways to assuage those concerns. Tuesday night during his report to the Assembly he addressed the claim by some who oppose the ordinance that they weren’t adequately notified.

“There is a responsibility that the residents of the Borough have, also. A lot of people have said…they didn’t know it was happening. I researched the record today, it was introduced in March of 2011, it had three public hearings before it finally passed in June of 2011. It had three public hearings before the assembly,” he said, adding that there will be plenty more opportunities for public testimony and public hearings in the future.

Assembly Chambers were standing room only in anticipation of a vote, but Assembly Member Wolf pulled his ordinance from the agenda citing concerns that communication about the measure among the Assembly might not pass muster with open records laws.

But that wasn’t the last of it.

Assembly Member Bill Smith addressed what he called inaccuracies in both the public testimony heard that evening and the language in Wolf’s proposed ordinance.

“Basically, I believe he made a completely unwarranted and actually a…defamatory attack on a non-profit and its director and I believe that he should not make those statements again and it would be quite appropriate if he would apologize,” Smith said of Wolf’s reference to the Kenai Watershed Forum in his ordinance.

As Wolf explained in an interview last week, his issue with the Kenai Watershed Forum has to do with what he sees as that organization’s influence on Borough legal matters. In 2009 after an assessment by the Watershed Forum of the previous Borough code that protected anadromous streams, the Assembly removed a section of that code.

“It really raises some questions of transparency and integrity in that association the Watershed Forum had with the Kenai Peninsula Borough because the Watershed Forum was also receiving grant dollars from the Borough at the same time to remove culverts,” Wolf said.  ”It looks to be a very clouded, grey area”.

Calls for comment to the Kenai Watershed Forum were not immediately returned, but they’re not the only non-profit who does business with the Borough.

The Kenai Youth Restoration Corps, for which Wolf serves as Chair of the Board of Directors, was given a Borough contract this past fall for work at the North Peninsula Recreation Center.

At the meeting Tuesday, Wolf explained his withdrawal of the ordinance.

“I’ve long believed in the process of this government. It may not be perfect, but I believe very clearly in the transparency and the integrity of our government process. It’s for that reason and the question of the open meetings act that I pulled (the ordinance). I do not want question or clouds surrounding an ordinance and trying to push forward just because I’m being a bull head,” Wolf said.

As it stands, the Task Force will continue its work on the existing ordinance. During a presentation earlier in the meeting, Navarre’s Chief of Staff Paul Ostrander gave an update on the Task Force’s work to this point and what comes next. He said they hope to have recommendations finalized by mid-February, then hold a series of town-hall meetings in Nikiski, Moose Pass, Cooper Landing and Kasilof, before going before the Assembly for a vote, perhaps in mid-April.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 

 


New Cook Inlet Monitoring Site Aids Responders In Real Time

A new online tool developed by the Cook Inlet Regional Citizens Advisory Council and the Alaska Ocean Observing System went live last week, just in time to be put to use tracking developments off Kodiak Island with the grounding of the drilling rig Kulluk. The new Cook Inlet Response Tool, or CIRT, was designed specifically for tracking and planning for oil spills and other incidents around Cook Inlet.

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From the relative comfort of my office in Kenai, I can see what’s happening, in real time, all over Cook Inlet and beyond using this new site that’s been a decade in the making. CIRCAC worked with the Alaska Ocean Observing System to put together an impressive amount of data, all in one place.

Want to see what the roads look like in Ninilchik? Or find out more about the spill response plan for the Drift River Terminal on the West Side of the Inlet? Maybe see what the weather’s like in Beluga? That’s just the beginning of what this new CIRT website can provide.

The catalog of data reaches all the way down to Kodiak and came in pretty handy over the last week as we all watched Shell play a tender game of catch and tow with the Kulluk drill rig. The official announcement for the site came last Friday and Susan Saupe the Director of Science and Research for CIRCAC in Kodiak, says responders were linking up to it almost immediately from the Anchorage Command Center.

“Again, they weren’t able to do an overflight until the following morning so it was a really great window into what that beach looked like when it doesn’t have 40 foot swells on it,” Saupe said.

That’s precisely what CIRT was designed for.

With dozens of data points and monitoring stations all over the Cook Inlet area, anyone can access the site and see, for instance, where concentrations of Tanner Crabs are in Kachemak Bay or the surface temperature of the water near Kalgin Island. It’s about aggregating all of the information in one place where it can be sort of mixed and matched and taken in visually.

The data are produced by 30 different cooperating state and federal agencies working for more than a decade to piece it all together in a comprehensive package. Cooperating agencies have been conducting coastal habitat studies since 2001.

Saupe said CIRT is a work in progress, but they hope to continue to refine it as a kind of one-stop shop for just about any kind of marine/science/weather information anyone could want.

“It can be from various different government agencies or organizations and if they have a web cam in Cook Inlet or if they have a weather station, get that information linked so people can access it in real time and you don’t have to go to the FAA to look at their sensors and NOAA to look at their sensors,” she said.

She said they’re anxious to get some feedback from users about what can be improved, what information is missing and how it can all be made better.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-


Soldotna Council To Announce Mayor Opening At Next Meeting

The Soldotna City Council will meet in a special session Wednesday to declare an opening for the office of Mayor, signaling the official end of Senator-elect Peter Micciche’s run in that office.

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The newly elected senator for the Kenai Peninsula is fond of saying he’s not interested in politics. The need for a younger voice in Soldotna politics is what compelled him to run for a city council seat in 2006.

Next Wednesday, Micciche will end his second term as mayor. Speaking on the Coffee Table program last week, he described what he saw as a need to bring more voices into the dialogue about the present and future plans of the city.

“One example is the Parks and Rec Commission was one demographic, it was all female, many of them didn’t have young families any longer.  Very, very active, very nice group of folks, but we put a fishing guide on that group and we put a young father that had kids in the parks and younger mothers that were involved in different things in the community and diversified that quite a bit,” Micciche said.

Council member and Vice Mayor Brenda Hartman will serve in the interim until a special election can be held and a new Mayor sworn in. Soldotna City Clerk Teresa Fahning said the Department of Justice has up to 90 days to approve a special election after the Council recognizes an opening.

By the time the final vote is cast in that special election, Senator-elect Micciche will have been sworn in and will likely be several weeks into various committee meetings, such as the TAPS Throughput Decline committee, which he will co-chair with fellow freshman senator Mike Dunleavy from the Mat-Su Valley.

Though the committee will deal with issues concerning pipeline production and revenues, Micciche rejects calling it an oil tax committee.

“It’s about ‘what do we need to do for improving water and gas handling facilities on the slope to increase oil production?’ Do we have access issues, do we have permitting issues, is there state lands on the north slope that can be opened up more efficiently. (Those) are a part of the puzzle that will hopefully flatten the decline of North Slope oil (which) is in our best interest right now,” he said.

When legislators take their oaths and the legislature gavels in on the 15th, Micciche says he’ll take the same philosophies that guided him as mayor into the senate negotiating rooms.

“In my view, it’s not that I walk in with a philosophy that says ‘This is my philosophy, this is the platform I was elected on, I can’t bend in any way, no compromise’. My job is to get the work done that’s best for Alaskans and that means I have to reach across the aisle,” he said. Micciche didn’t support the Senate Bipartisan Coalition that had been in place in previous legislatures during the campaign. Instead, he thinks more time will be spent hearing input from all Senators.

-Shaylon Cochran/KDLL-

 


Plastic Bag Ban In Homer Goes Into Effect

Homer’s ban on disposable plastic shopping bags in Homer went into effect Tuesday and the city is gearing up to enforce it.

The issue was one of the more highly contested of the past year. Ordinance 12-36(a), which outlines the plan for enforcing the ban, passed through the Homer City Council with a vote of 4-2 on Aug. 27th. It was vetoed on Sept. 10th by then Mayor Jim Hornaday, but that veto was later overridden by the City Council on Sept. 24th by a vote of 4-2.

According to Homer City Manager Walt Wrede, the ban only applies to store owners supplying a certain type of plastic bag and will not affect citizens who happen to have bags in their possession.

“It’s a ban on stores passing them out … it’s mostly the grocery-type bags that you would see at Safeway or Save-U-More,” said Wrede.

The ordinance states that local businesses cannot replenish their stocks of  plastic shopping bags once the ban takes effect, but Wrede says this will not require local businesses to immediately dispose of any bags they currently possess after the ban is imposed.

“I don’t think you’ll see them disappear right away,” he said. “Hopefully, there will be voluntary compliance.”

One of the more prominent suppliers of disposable shopping bags in Homer is Safeway. When asked for comment on the ban, Sarah Osbourne, the director of Public and Government Affairs for Safeway’s Northwestern Division stated that while Safeway is not opposed to the idea of a ban on plastic bags, if the ban is to be effective than there should be a fine imposed on paper bags, which she says would potentially encourage shoppers to use reusable cloth bags instead.

“Paper is not necessarily the solution … it’s just another environmental problem,” said Osbourne.

The ban on disposable plastic shopping bags in Homer went into effect Tuesday, Jan. 1st.

-Peter Sheppard/KBBI-