EDITOR, Daily News:

I recently had the opportunity to attend the 2020 AML legislative conference on the behalf of the Ketchikan Gateway Borough with Mayor Rodney Dial and Borough Manager Ruben Duran. The conference consisted of various sessions including updates from State of Alaska agency directors, current bills going through the state Legislature, overview of the state budget, and a speech by the governor detailing his economic vision. Major themes were: What happens on the state level directly impacts local municipalities; collaboration between other communities can garner new ideas/solutions; and constant communication with your state representatives can produce good policy outcomes.

Some of the important community issues that the borough advocated for include opposing actions by the State of Alaska to shift costs of education to our local municipality, and urging continuance of funding for the Alaska Marine Highway System.

The first measure mostly dealt with school bond debt reimbursement that the state helps contribute towards Ketchikan’s education bond debt in an effort to help offset costs. In FY2020 our municipality was impacted by cost-saving measures that shifted $1 million in bond reimbursement to the local level. The state has an obligation to help pay for education costs set forth in our constitution and has routinely reimbursed local communities for their bond debt. Without these important stable fiscal measures coming from the state, municipalities risk imposing new tax measures onto local residents to offset education costs.

The AMHS received a $45 million reduction in its FY2020 budget, which impacted reliable year-round ferry service and an adequate maintenance fund for ship repair. Currently the Legislature is working on providing emergency operating funds to get some ferries back online, but this isn’t expected until early spring. While attending a session on ferry reform in the House Transportation Committee, I learned that the state is looking at moving the AMHS to a public corporation away from the Department of Transportation’s control and into an independent ferry authority. To my surprise, the reformers looked at similar ferry systems in Canada and Europe  that have a port authority style ferry system to deliver service. Secondly, the governor created a nine-person working task force to help plan the future of the AMHS. However, only two coastal legislators (Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, and Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka) are on the working panel, with the majority of members being from non-coastal communities. Hopefully this restructuring will help stabilize funding, scheduling and building of new ferries for our community.

The borough delegation also met with Rep. Dan Ortiz and Sen. Stedman’s office to reiterate local concerns about the degrading South Tongass Highway, updates to the Ocean Ranger Program, and advocating to keep emergency dispatchers here in Ketchikan. We learned that ADOT has emergency road funds that could be used on the South Tongass Highway for temporary resurfacing and structural re-stabilization measures. To be determined.

AUSTIN OTOS

Member, Ketchikan Gateway Borough Assembly