The docks in Angoon need work. They lack basic services like electricity and fail to meet the standards set in the Americans with Disabilities Act, and are just plain falling apart. The problem is nothing new: the docks were built decades ago and their age shows.
This year, the city planned on an upgrade. Angoon mayor Josh Bowen filed all the right paperwork and applications to secure $1 million in funds from the Harbor Facility Matching Grant program. Then Governor Mike Dunleavy vetoed the budget, zeroing out all funds for the harbor grant program. The legislature failed to override the line-item veto last week, putting Angoon’s harbor upgrade in jeopardy.
Fixing up the harbor is top of the list for Angoon Mayor Bowen. “I’d call it a total replacement if anything,” he said. “It’s in extremely bad shape.” People have fallen through the harbor before — the kind of accident that could warrant a lawsuit. “Luckily they’re friends of the city,” Bowen said.
In addition to the public safety risk, the existing harbor inhibits economic activity, Bowen said. It dissuades visitors from stopping over. Without services, they turn to other harbors. “We see boats going by all the time,” Bowen said. “If they knew that we had a nice harbor over here that they could stop then we would have more people stopping and spending money here.”
And its current condition interferes with Angoon residents’ ability to work. Forrest Braley Sr. has lived in Angoon for 29 years. He owns a boat and hopes to get into commercial trolling, but the docks stand in his way.
“It’s just an unserviced facility,” Braley said by phone. “There’s no electricity so you can’t charge batteries, there’s no water so you can’t wash your deck.”
Braley walks with crutches. His right leg is amputated. Now, the only way to get down the docks is to climb down a set of 20-odd steps at what Braley says is a 30-degree angle. That doesn’t work so well for him. Or really anyone in Angoon, disabled or not, looking for modern, functional harbor services.
The city took control of the harbor in 2006 when responsibility transferred from the state to municipalities for all ports and harbors. As part of that transition, the legislature also created the Harbor Facility Matching Grants program. Lawmakers fund the program through appropriations every year.
The funding recognizes that ports and harbors needed work when ownership and control transferred from the state to cities. “There were going to be needs for ops maintenance and construction that the state committed to contributing to,” said Nils Andreassan, the executive director of the Alaska Municipal league.
This year, the Harbor Facility Matching Grant program was one of several statewide programs zeroed out in Gov. Dunleavy’s line-item veto of the state budget. Angoon had qualified for what’s called a Tier I grant: high-priority grants reserved for cities with major maintenance and repair needs on harbors previously owned by the state. Only cities that have not previously applied can qualify. There aren’t so many of those left, Mayor Bowen said.
“It’s just really sad that we’re finally at this point that we want to move forward with this thing and then the veto comes out,” he said. He couldn’t speak to why the city hadn’t pursued harbor repairs prior. They had done “Band-Aids” over the years until last summer, when local leadership decided it was time to make a plan for an overhaul.
“We decided it’s time to break some eggs and make an omelette,” Mayor Bowen said. They applied for the Harbor Facility Matching Funds grant. The city worked out a few different potential plans at different budgets with the contractor: the basic plan, the middle, and the Cadillac.
The Cadillac is what Mayor Bowen wants to see happen: that would bring services like electricity and water and make the dock ADA-accessible, which as a public place, is a legal requirement. He was counting on the state matching funds to make it happen.But the veto leaves Angoon at sea. Without the Harbor Facility Matching Grant Program, Andreassan said, cities will have to turn to local taxpayers, residents, and businesses to pick up the difference. Or, the harbors will remain undermaintained.
Angoon is home to about 450 people. The average household income is just over $34,000 a year. Raising taxes or turning to local business to fund the harbor repair isn’t a viable option, Mayor Bowen said.
Instead, he has pursued funding from the federal government through two avenues: the Federal Land Access Program (FLAP) and a BUILD grant. But the veto puts that potential funding in jeopardy, too. Both those grant programs require local match, and Angoon applied expecting that $1 million in state funds, or $2 million total. Now, it just has the roughly $1 million in city money to match the federal grants.
That would cover the local matching portion of the $2.5 million FLAP grant. But without state funds, there isn’t enough in local matching dollars to meet the requirements of the $9.8 million grant from BUILD. That’s the grant that would let Angoon pursue the Cadillac plan.
The city finds out later this summer and fall whether or not it qualified for either federal grant. Regardless, Bowen said, “We’re going to have to have a tough conversation…about which of these added options are we going to have to sacrifice or get rid of.”
That might mean deciding between what Braley, the Angoon resident trying to get into commercial fishing, sees as essential services. He doesn’t think Angoon should have to choose between electricity, water, and ADA-accessibility. Other cities have managed to upgrade their facilities with the help of state matching funds, and he wants the same for Angoon.
“I think it’s time for rural communities to be updated too so people like myself can have a higher self esteem so we can make money to buy things we need, like food,” Braley said.
Angoon finds out whether or not it received federal funding later this summer and fall. The legislature failed to override the veto last week, so regardless, the city will have to make tough decisions about what modern services its harbor needs most.
Correction: an earlier version of this article stated that the harbor in Angoon does not have water services. Hoses do service the docks, but they are currently off because the city is in “water conservation mode.”