With Specific Impacts Still Unclear, Aleutians Brace For State Budget Cuts

Aug 21, 2019

The M/V Tustumena, photographed in King Cove. Alaska's ferry system is losing $40 million in state funding.
Credit Zoe Sobel/KUCB

This week, Gov. Mike Dunleavy signed a bill that provides permanent fund dividends of $1,600, while maintaining vetoes on funding for programs like Medicaid and the Alaska Marine Highway System. 

With the budget now set, communities across the Aleutian chain are bracing for the effects of statewide cuts — some passed by the Legislature, others imposed through the governor's vetoes.

Some the funding reductions are straightforward, like Dunleavy's elimination of state debt reimbursement programs. For the Aleutians East Borough, that means a $381,000 hit over construction projects in False Pass and Akutan.  

Other cuts are hard to quantify right now, including those to environmental monitoring efforts that are vital to the region.

"It's definitely going to impact our ability to monitor natural hazards in general, not just volcanoes," said David Fee, coordinating scientist for the Alaska Volcano Observatory (AVO).

Although the agency is primarily funded by federal dollars, Fee said it also relies heavily on University of Alaska staff, students, and facilities — all of which are looking at a $25 million cut this year, with more scheduled to come

"Of course, anytime there are budget cuts, we try to maintain our mission and maintain public safety as much as we can," he said. "But there will be impacts to how we can do our job."

While there's still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the university system, Fee said the AVO's ability to monitor volcanoes will be affected, as will its efforts to provide timely warnings of eruptions in the volcanically active Aleutians. 

Similarly, the Alaska Earthquake Center (AEC) is preparing for a $2.5 million cut to the USArray system, which operates seismic sensors across the state.

Dr. Natalia Ruppert, an AEC seismologist, said the reduced funding will force the removal of sensors in 2020, meaning the center won't be able to report earthquakes as quickly or accurately. 

"For now, we are on a strict travel ban, which means we won't be able to mount a public outreach or rapid response visit to any communities in case of a significant seismic event," said Ruppert. "The rest of our services will be reevaluated as soon as we learn what funding support we are getting from the state."

Beyond safety impacts, the Aleutian region is anticipating economic effects from cuts to the Alaska Marine Highway System. Dunleavy vetoed $5 million in ferry funding that lawmakers had attempted to add back after they reduced its state support by $40 million. 

While it's still unclear exactly how the M/V Tustumena will be affected, Dr. Ginny Hatfield said organizations along its regional route are bracing for impacts. 

"That's my biggest worry, because that's a really important income stream," said Hatfield, director of the nonprofit Museum of the Aleutians in Unalaska. "It's a great way for the museum to become independent — by having the sales, admissions, and people come into the museum and contribute."

Hatfield estimated passengers double the museum's revenue on ferry days between ticket sales and gift shop purchases.

"Ferry passengers show up," she said. "They're really generous and great people, and we really rely on them right now."

Beyond losing income from travelers, smaller and more isolated communities along the Tustumena route could face reduced access to transportation and freight. It remains to be seen just how much King Cove, Sand Point, and other towns will be affected.

Now that the state budget has been settled, regional leaders are expected to adjust their plans for the fiscal year over the coming months.