Alaska News Nightly: November 3, 2011

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Air Force Cutting Back Civilian Jobs

Dave Donaldson, APRN – Juneau, Libby Casey, APRN – Washington DC & Dan Bross, KUAC – Fairbanks

Military jobs cuts are being felt in Alaska.

The Air Force has eliminated more than 250 jobs previously available to civilians at the Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson near Anchorage.  Major Joseph Coslett, the base’s public affairs director, says the cuts were ordered late Wednesday as part of a national push to help meet an overall Air Force goal of more than 9,000 reductions.  However, he says that does not mean there will be that many people who will lose their current jobs.

“They identified 256 positions.  Of those, 50 had folks in those current positions.  Now what our civilian personnel office is trying to do is move those folks to other open positions on the installation,” Coslett

Coslett says the positions that will be eliminated were primarily the result of the merger of Fort Richardson and Elemendorf Air Force Base into one, joint operation.

Since the cuts announced this morning reflect specifically identified positions, Major Coslett says there are also other opportunities available for civilians to work at the base – both with Air Force and Reserve Units.

“Some medical or some operational jobs or careers haven’t been looked at yet because they directly support the war-fighting capability.  And so those are our mission partners here on JBER, and so maybe some of those folks that were identified could go that way.   But what we’re trying to do is we’re trying to exhaust every voluntary measure we can.  That way we don’t have to do any involuntary reduction in force,” Coslett said.

Alaska’s other Air Force base is also affected by the Department of Defense re-alignment and draw down. Air Force spokesman, Staff Sergeant Miguel Lara says Eielson – near Fairbanks — is also seeing civilian job losses.

“Right now, Eilson’s share of the resource management decision is at present 45 positions over the next five years.  This doesn’t directly translate into people.  Some of the positions currently designated to be cut are currently empty or will be reallocated,” Lara said.

Lara says it’s unclear exactly how many people will actually be laid off.  He says a civilian hiring freeze remains in place, as the base pursues voluntary cut backs to try to avoid further mandated reductions.

Congressman Don Young is calling the job cuts “dead wrong.”  He says Alaska’s Congressional delegation is writing a letter stating concerns to Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley.

“What we have to try to do is try to, and we have a delegation letter which we’re sending over if we ever get the Senators to agree on anything, we’re going to have a letter that says no this is wrong for the military mission.  And of course it does affect jobs but it isn’t just the jobs, it’s the military mission,” Young said.

Young says he’s concerned this could be a harbinger of what’s to come some day when there’s another round of BRAC or Base Realignment and Closure, when military installations around the country are examined for cuts.

“That’s the next danger we have in Alaska, if this attitude keeps going.  And I will tell you if it gets to the point where I think we’re not providing the appropriate training and equipment for my
soldiers I won’t support any military.  Because that’s not fair to any troops in the military, to have an inadequately trained soldier, male or female, inadequately equipped soldier, that’s immoral for this Congress to send them possibly into combat,” Young said.

There’s no indication from the Obama Administration that a round of BRAC is coming down the pike.  Young says regardless, the delegation must constantly promote Alaska as a huge training ground that’s strategically located at the top of the world and defend it from cuts to the military.

Report Calls for More After School Programs

Daysha Eaton, KDLG – Dillingham

Alaska needs improvement when it comes to after school programs.     That’s according to a new report by a group that is working to ensure that all children have access to affordable, quality afterschool programs.

Aleutian Region Listen as State’s Top Fisheries Earner

Alexandra Gutierrez, KUCB – Unalaska

Every year, the Alaska Department of Labor devotes one monthly report entirely to fisheries issues. They run the data on how many people the fishing industry employs and how much revenue it brings in.

The report found that the number of people commercially harvesting fish has gone down over the past five years. In 2005, the monthly employment average was about 7,500 people. Last year, it was under 7,000.

Rob Kreiger was one of the economists who helped put together the report. He’s not quite sure why this decline happened. He says that the department didn’t examine potential causes like the national economic downturn or the implementation of Alaska-specific fisheries policies, like rationalization.

“[Rationalization] certainly might be an external factor which affects things, but I couldn’t say whether it’s a driving force or not,” says Kreiger.

Kreiger did point out that the amount of money Alaska’s fisheries bring in had gone up in the past few years, though. The total dockside value of the state’s fisheries last year was $1.6 billion.

The Aleutian and Pribilof Island region was the most productive area, contributing $473 million to that amount. About 4,700 commercial fishermen were employed here.

The next highest earner was Southcentral, bringing in $265 million and employing nearly 8,000 permit holders and crew members.

The Department of Labor found that the region with the most fishermen was Southeast, with about 9,000 fishermen. The value of their catch was about $200 million.

Bristol Bay, meanwhile, has shown the most growth. Earnings there went up from about $100 million in 2005 to $170 million in 2010.

Kodiak was highlighted as being one of the most stable regions for fishermen. The island has had about 800 permit holders for the past five years, with about 2,500 crew members.

Overall, employment and revenue figures did not show any erratic fluctuations. Kreiger says that the fishing industry continues to be a reliable employer of people across the state of Alaska.

“I guess there were no real surprises this year for me,” says Kreiger.

The report did not contain information on how many fish processing jobs exist in Alaska.

Providence Hospital Ceasing to Hire Tobacco Users

Lori Townsend, APRN – Anchorage

Providence Alaska Medical Center and its affiliates around the state will stop hiring tobacco users as of Nov. 17. The health care provider will begin testing prospective employees for nicotine along with illegal drugs.

Tammy Green is director of health management services for Providence Health & Services Alaska. She says it’s not a decision the company made overnight.

FCC Ruling Extends Broadband to Rural Areas

Stephanie Joyce, KUCB – Unalaska

The creation of a fund specifically intended to improve rural Internet service seems like it would be a good thing for Alaska.  But the decision is less-than-popular with Alaska’s telecommunications companies.

Slow Internet and outdated wireless data coverage are facts of life for many Alaskan communities.

That might be about to change though.  Last week the Federal Communications Commission dedicated a $4.5 billion dollar subsidy fund to providing broadband and 3G access in rural areas.

In the past, the Universal Service Fund was used to subsidize rural telephone usage.  Now the FCC has renamed it the Connect America Fund and expanded its mission to ensuring broadband access in remote areas.  Here’s FCC spokesperson Mark Wigfield.

“These reforms are designed to get affordable, robust broadband to areas of rural America that need support to get that.  Where without support there wouldn’t be a business case for a private company to do that.”

Currently, only 75 percent of Alaskans have access to what the FCC considers broadband Internet, mostly in Anchorage, Fairbanks and Juneau.  The ruling requires telecommunications companies to upgrade Internet service for the remaining 155,000 residents in order to continue receiving subsidies.

Many companies oppose the decision, saying it takes vital funding out of the state.  In 2010 Alaska telecoms received more than $200 million in subsidies through the Fund.  By some estimates they stand to lose three-quarters of that money over the next five years under the new plan.

One of the biggest concerns raised by companies is how they will pay off infrastructure investments that were made to support telephone service while accommodating the additional expense of providing broadband.  Adak Eagle Enterprises is the telephone provider for the Aleutian community of Adak.  Chief Operations Officer Andilea Weaver says the ruling puts her company in jeopardy.

“Right now, we don’t even know where we’re going to be 3 years from now.  Our forecast, based on this ruling, is that we won’t even be in business.”

Weaver says the FCC hasn’t taken into account the technological hurdles that make service in rural Alaska expensive.

“They don’t understand that there is no fiber in the ground that connects Adak to Anchorage.  It’s all backhaul from satellites.”

She says the ruling means purchasing more satellite bandwidth with less funding. In particular, she bristled at a new spending cap of $3,000 a year per line.  In 2010 Adak Enterprises received almost $17,000 in subsidies per line to operate their network.

FCC spokesperson Mark Wigfield says the ruling does take areas like Adak into consideration.

“You know we also recognize that some areas are very costly to serve.  So there is a waiver process that we provided for areas where costs are really going to be above and beyond that benchmark.”

And Alaska Senator Mark Begich says the final ruling strikes a balance of accountability and opportunity.

“The FCC I think feels better about how the money will be deployed in the most difficult and expensive areas and the companies are being responsive by recognizing that we’ve got to move some of the resource from the urban areas to the more rural areas where we really need to get this broadband backbone built.”

So far only a 7-page executive summary of the ruling has been released.  When the final document is published in coming weeks, it’s expected to be more 500 pages long and will likely address in much greater detail how the program is going to affect Alaska’s telecommunications.

Multi-Talented Jeff Brown Wins Statewide Recognition

Ed Schoenfeld, CoastAlaska – Juneau

Jeff Brown is a longtime Alaskan, who entertains kids, produces radio shows, writes how-to books, puts out parody post cards and publications, volunteers with community groups … the list goes on.

“Where does he come up with those ideas? He’s constantly filled with funny ideas and constantly filled with just amazing connections,” says Juneau Arts and Humanities Council Executive Director Nancy DeCherney.

She’s known Brown for years, as have hundreds, even thousands, of others around the state.

“I don’t think there’s everybody in this town who can summarize everything that Jeff did. Because you know him from a different perspective and I know him from a different perspective,” she says.

But let’s try. (Link to Brown’s website)

Brown says it all started in high school when he heard the experimental comedy group Firesign Theatre.

“They made it possible for me to think it would be possible to go to a radio station and start volunteering,” he says.

He moved to Juneau as a Coast Guard medic in 1975. Soon, he came across fledgling public radio station KTOO.

“They were having a fund-raising marathon and I asked if I could help out and they said, ‘Sure.’ And they asked for volunteers to be on the radio and I said ‘Sure.’ And I’ve been saying ‘Yes’ ever since,” he says.

Brown went on to work for the station and its TV affiliate. He also became a key member of an improvisational theater group, a historical play for tourists and a news parody show.

As time passed, he also became a recognized artist, working with stained glass, manipulated photographs and assembling found objects. He’s even created museum exhibits of Alaska mazes and board games.(Read about the exhibit Vinyl Resting Place., which Brown created.)

“He’s one of those rare individuals who seem to have no boundaries in regard to medium. It’s Jeff. You can see it. His signature’s there,” says Bob Banghart, chief curator of the Alaska State Museums.

He’s also a musician and founder of the Alaska Folk Festival, another place Brown has been active.

“In any various year he was engaged in putting together programming or doing the newsletter or organizing the workshops or organizing M.C.s or being the M.C. or being on stage playing. He’s done everything there is to do, probably with the exception of selling of hot dogs, but we’ve never sold hot dogs,” he says.

Then there’s the kid-focused efforts. Brown’s produced a nationally-distributed children’s radio program, toured an Alaska magic show, and was half of the kids’ music duo The Wigglers.

He also became king of balloon animals, organizing a worldwide celebration. It brought him to the attention of then-Governor Wally Hickel.

“He would come down on a monthly basis to do his call-in show. And being a fresh balloonist, I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to have a title called balloonist laureate. And they agreed with me and gave me a certificate to prove that,” he says.

Following governors named him minister of merriment, commissioner of mirth, professor of play, and now, master of cheerful smiles.

One of Brown’s most recent efforts has been Real Alaskan Magazine. The 64-page, full color, glossy humor publication parodies images and stories from the north.

He says people have been more than willing to help.

“I can call up somebody up in Sitka and say, ‘Can you find a couple ballet students and put them up in tutus and rubber boots and have them posing at Swan Lake?’ and they say, ‘No Problem.’ I talk to people like Martin Buser, will you pose with a can of dog mush? ‘Sure, no problem,’” he says.

A third edition is due out on April Fools’ Day.

In fact, he took a side trip from his recent awards ceremony to create a new visual pun.

“When I was in Anchorage I convinced the head of the Alaska Zoo to have my friend Karl Ohls pose inside a cage as ‘The Wild Alaskan Bureaucrat.’ And I photo-shopped some kids looking at him as well as the executive director of the zoo,” he says.

Brown continues as program director of KTOO and its sister station KRNN. And his next project? A series of radio programs of Alaska poets and authors reading their own works.

Brown’s lifetime achievement award comes at a time when he’s having to slow down. He has Parkinson’s disease, a brain disorder that causes shaking, stuttering and makes movement difficult. But he’s still being creative.

“I can do the same things I’ve done before but it takes a lot longer. It’s kind of discouraging that way but you just have to muscle through,” he says.

He’s a little self-conscious about the lifetime achievement arts award, and says lots of other people have done as much or more. And it hasn’t changed his goal.

“I guess it all centers around making people happy. And that’s kind of what I’ve given myself as a job in life, is to make people’s lives a little bit better. And making them laugh, making them smile and making their lives just a little bit easier to live,” he says.

Friends and colleagues are planning a community celebration of his award and works. It’s from at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center, from 5 to 7 p.m., on Monday, Oct. 31.

Yurts Provide Unique Living Situation

Diana Saverin, APRN Contributor

Alaskans live in many different kinds of creative structures. Reporter Diana Saverin recently traveled across the state taking shelter in everything from a converted garbage shed to a wall tent. She also found yurts – lots of yurts. As Saverin reports, there’s a lot more to living in a circle than might appear at first glance.