AMHS, PFD are main topics at town hall meeting

Stevens on ferry cuts: ‘Something is better than nothing’

Representative Louise Stutes and Senator Gary Stevens listen to public comments during a town hall in Cordova on Friday, April 12, 2019. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

Not long after the town hall started, Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, proudly held an “I Believe in Ferries” bumper sticker as Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, sat next to her in front of the growing crowd on April 12 at the Cordova Center.

“These are tough times …,” Stevens said. “My point right now is, something is better than nothing. The governor’s budget closes the marine highway down. It locks up all the vessels. It fires all the employees. We’re trying to find a way to reduce costs.”

Senator Gary Stevens in Cordova on Friday, April 12, 2019. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

Currently discussed, is a twice-per-month winter ferry sailing from Cordova to Valdez; a cut from previous winter sailings that occurred multiple times per month that serviced both Valdez and Whittier from Cordova. Both Stutes and Stevens said this funding scenario doesn’t make any sense given the dangers of winter driving on Alaska Highway 4 North and its distance from Anchorage.

Stutes hopes to have the Alaska Marine Highway System funding solution resolved before the budget is finalized. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, is working directly with the governor’s office on the ferry situation, she said.

“I’ve always been a huge proponent of if you have to have a little bit less service, but our service is dependable, we can work with that,” Stutes said. “But you gotta have the service and I think that we’re all on the same page that Valdez is the wrong spot for it to stop.”

Representative Louise Stutes at a town hall in Cordova on Friday, April 12, 2019. (Photo by Emily Mesner/The Cordova Times)

In addition to members of the public, Cordova Mayor Clay Koplin and Cordova Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Cathy Renfeldt spoke about the economic strain and hardships that will be faced in this community if ferry service stops.

“About seven years ago, the (M/V) Aurora was taken out of service for an emergency layup for three weeks,” Koplin said. “One week of groundfish processing, having to be frozen and flown out instead of taken out fresh on the ferry cost the fleet a million dollars.”

Renfeldt spoke adamantly and specifically about another AMHS funding scenario in which there would be no ferry service from Sept. 1-30.

“…From a tourism point of view, that’s extremely limiting and damaging to our community,” she said, adding that the month of September is the one time of year when every lodging is booked with sport fishermen. “I’ve already talked to lodging providers in town that have already had cancellations that time of year just due to the fact that you can’t book a marine highway sailing into Cordova after the end of August right now.”

In addition to lengthy discussion and discontent for the proposed marine highway cuts, Stevens and Stutes addressed the $3,000 permanent fund dividend promised by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

A $3,000 PFD will cost nearly $2 billion, or almost one third of the State’s revenue, Stevens said. In Dunleavy’s proposed budget, to solve a $1.6 billion deficit, the governor took $650 million out of agencies, leaving another billion-dollar shortage which is coming from cities and boroughs throughout the state, Stevens added.

A chart was projected above the representatives which highlighted the cost of a $3,000 PFD. This included millions of dollars of cuts to AMHS, the University of Alaska, K-12 education, school bond debt reimbursement, health and social services and Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority reserves. In addition to these cuts, local property and fish taxes would be collected.

Source: Offices of Sen. Gary Stevens and Rep. Louise Stutes

“We were able to put back in committee all fisheries cuts that had been taken …,” Stutes said, adding that there is still funding for the habitat subsistence director, weir counters and aerial surveys. “Overall, the house cut the budget by about $200 million so you’ll feel some of the effects but it’s not going to be a gut shot so to speak.”

The public is able to testify on every bill that gets put before the Legislature either by email or verbal testimony. For more information, or to make a testimony, contact the Cordova Legislative Information Office at 907-424-5461 or visit the office at 418 First Street.

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Emily Mesner is a staff reporter and photographer for The Cordova Times. Reach her at emesner@thecordovatimes.com. Emily graduated from Central Michigan University, earning a degree in photojournalism with a cultural competency certificate. She first visited Alaska in 2016, working as a media intern for the National Park Service in Kotzebue and Denali National Park and Preserve, and has been coming back ever since. To see more photos, follow @thecordovatimes and @emilymesnerphoto on Instagram.