Denali Commission directed to work on shutdown plan

  • The village of Newtok is seen in May 2006 along the eroding bank of the Ninglick River. The Denali Commission, created in 1998, is one of 15 federal agencies asked to submit a shutdown plan based on President Donald Trump’s first budget. The relocation of the village to a hilly area called Mertarvik nine miles away on Nelson Island is one of the projects the commission is still working on among other projects in rural Alaska. (Photo/File/AP)

Here’s the task handed to Denali Commission federal co-chair Joel Neimeyer: What would it take to shut down 17 years of the Denali Commission’s work in Alaska if funding is eliminated in 2018?

On March 31 by close of business day, Neimeyer was required by the Office of Management and Budget to summarize how he would close down the federal agency created in 1999.

President Donald Trump’s initial budget submitted to Congress, the so-called “skinny budget,” calls for eliminating the $15 million budget that funds a myriad of projects in rural Alaska.

Moving the eroding village of Newtok, gaining flush toilets, replacing bulk fuel storage tanks, finishing 40 power plants are among the Denali Commission projects that would halt.

“I had a Friday deadline to work on the shutdown plan,” Neimeyer said, referring to March 31. “We are doing this in a timeframe, along with the other 19 federal agency heads who are working on a shutdown plan.”

Trump’s initial budget is to be followed by a more detailed budget in mid-May. In the meantime, the skinny budget shows a preview of what to expect.

It proposes to shut down 19 agencies, including the three sister programs that shoulder similar funding work in disadvantaged parts of the US: the Appalachian Regional Commission, the Northern Border Commission and the Delta Regional Commission.

Other agency heads under the same orders include the National Endowment for the Arts and the Public Broadcasting System, which have garnered the bulk of the publicity.

While Denali Commission funding often came under fire as suspected pork, and was created by Alaska’s powerful late Sen. Ted Stevens in 1998, this is the first time the agency has been asked to visualize the tools needed for its own shutdown, Neimeyer said.

“The agency is criticized as duplicative. Some believe other agencies can easily do the work that we do. We’ve had our funding (proposed for eliminating) a handful of times,” Neimeyer said.

Each fiscal term around this time period in preparation for the president’s May budget, Niemeyer is usually outlining his budget request for projects.

“This is the first time I’ve been asked to write a shutdown plan,” he said.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Rep. Don Young’s offices have sought to calm panic by reminding constituents and agencies it’s Congress that ultimately decides the budget, not the president.

Murkowski made an outreach to Alaskans early on in the budget process.

“This budget request is the first step in a long process through which Congress decides which programs to fund and how much funding those programs should receive,” Murkowski said. “The President’s budget expresses his priorities, and we will consider them, but it is the congressional budget and appropriations committees that will establish our priorities and fund them over the coming months.”

From the House, Young gave a similar message.

“Congress holds the power of the purse and it holds top line funding among our agencies. Ultimately, we will see how that shapes out,” said Matt Schuckerow, Young’s communication director. “This is not the full budget. He (Young) doesn’t want everyone to get up in arms as he begins. He will keep the Denali Commission on his radar.”

Currently, Young is working with House and Senate Appropriations on priorities and figures for funding. There will be major reforms and policy provisions that make changes to the way the previous administration operated, Schuckerow said, but he doesn’t support eliminating the Denali Commission.

In defending the commission, a big obstacle is the constant need to educate colleagues about how Alaska differs from the rest of the country, Shuckerow said.

“Of his (434) colleagues in the house, over half have served less than seven years. It is always an education campaign given the number of folks who are new here. Is it over? No, it’s always ongoing,” Shuckerow said. “Over half weren’t here when the Affordable Care Act took place.”

Murkowski plays a vital role on the Senate Appropriations Committee, as did Stevens when the Denali Commission was created. She too has pledged her support, and it won’t be the first time she’s fought to keep its line item in the budget.

Keeping the commission alive, however, meant devolving from an all-time $150 million budget at its peak to its current $15 million. The money went for building new clinics, teacher housing, new power plants, new fuel storage and new roads.

Its mission under the Denali Commission Act of 1998 was to “deliver services of the federal government in the most cost-effective manner by reducing administrative and overhead costs.”

Broadly, that meant providing job training and economic development in rural communities, providing power generation, transition facilities, modern communication systems, water and sewer systems and other infrastructure.

The most critical projects on Neimeyer’s mind are the 55 villages in various stages of bulk fuel storage replacements and the 40 power plant projects listed for either an energy-efficient upgrade or replacement.

He’s also concerned about all the years of funding and work that went into getting the sinking Newtok village to higher ground and three other villages slowly disintegrating into the sea.

The herculean move to get Newtok’s 300-some villagers to their new site on Nelson Island (nine miles away) is further along than relocation efforts for Shishmaref, Kivalina and Shaktoolik, Neimeyer said.

Newtok is becoming a tiny island between the Ningliq River and a sinking bog to the north because of melting permafrost attributed to climate change. The new village is named Mertarvik.

“We’ve been helping Newtok the last two years in the move to the new site,” Neimeyer said. “Shishmaref, Kivalina and Shaktoolik, also want to move. Newtok has site control while the others do not have land selected. That’s the next phase of work. Land selection and securing the site. It’s a long process.

It’s not a short process at all. That’s what we see on the horizon. Those three may not get assistance. No federal agency has the authority or funding to develop a new community site.”

The biggest criticism of the Denali Commission is that it does work that could be done by other agencies. It was also criticized as a “congressional experiment that hasn’t worked out in practice,” by former Inspector General Mike Marsh.

It’s an “unnecessary middleman,” Marsh wrote in a seven-page report to Congress.

Alaska’s congressional delegation was able to raise a strong rally for the Denali Commission’s work, and saved its funding.

Then President Barak Obama breathed new life into efforts prior to his 2015 Alaska visit. He designated the commission as a “one-stop shop for matters relating to coastal resilience in Alaska.”

Neimeyer maintains the commission’s work isn’t duplicative.

Federal agencies have a 50-state model with tight controls over what kinds of projects are eligible and how the funding needs to be spent.

That model doesn’t necessarily allow for Alaska’s diverse economic, social and climatic plight.

“It doesn’t work in rural Alaska; that’s the difference we bring. We can adjust our investment. We’re able to customize investments,” he said, according to the priorities seen in critical needs.

Whether the Denali Commission can survive the upcoming budget process should be known or at least hinted at by October, Neimeyer said.

“More likely we won’t know until the end of the year,” he said.

Shuckerow notes that Congress hasn’t followed a set schedule for passing budgets in recent years. Deadlines such as the upcoming April 28 date for government shutdown if the budget for the remaining portion of 2017 isn’t passed are becoming more of the norm.

“We’re funded until the end of April. Once we come up with funding for rest of 2017, then we will work on 2018,” Shuckerow said.

Naomi Klouda is a correspondent for the Journal. She can be reached at [email protected].

04/05/2017 - 1:37pm