For a lot of years, former Gov. Walter J. Hickel has advocated use of Alaska's Permanent Fund riches as a means to stimulate economic activity in cities, towns and villages across the state. Sadly, nobody has been listening.
If they had been, and action had been taken on his solid recommendation, it could be that the Yukon River town of St. Marys wouldn't now be shutting down its police department as of July 31 laying off its last on-duty officer.
There's just no money left in the public coffers to pay a policeman's salary, says city manager John Purcell.
St. Marys is not alone. Other Alaska small towns and villages are caught in a money pinch, with little in the way of economic opportunity or a local tax base to support civic needs.
This comes at a time when the Permanent Fund is abulge with bucks, and continues annually to pump out free money to almost every man, woman and child in Alaska.
Granted, the Permanent Fund dividend payments are so entrenched in Alaskan life that nothing short of total state bankruptcy will ever dislodge them.
Hickel no doubt recognizes this as a fact of life, but he believes the state should go beyond handing out money to individuals to spend on such luxuries as boom-boxes, Hawaii vacations, and wide-screen TVs along with, no doubt, some dollars to cover family expenses and maybe put some money aside for college tuitions.
The Hickel plan is to provide Permanent Fund dividend payments to local governments across the state no strings attached money that could be used as needed. His hope is that officials in most communities would use the dollars for infrastructure and capital projects that would aid in building jobs and have lasting benefits.
The allocation of such payments could be based on population or some other format that would ensure a fair distribution, but that's a detail.
His concept is right on target.
The 540 citizens of St. Marys, had the Hickel plan been in place, might now have the reassurance that a local police force would be on duty to help perform public safety operations.
Legislators, unfortunately, are so terrified of doing anything that would seem to lessen constituents' access to Permanent Fund dividends that they simply will not consider what might be accomplished through a more enlightened variation on the annual give-away scheme.
And so the former governor's proposal is blown away on the winds that churn the waters of the Gastineau Channel during the long months that the Legislature is in session every year in Juneau.
But we hope Hickel doesn't give up on his idea.
The Voice of the Times
Aug. 1, 2005
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