The federal government has been generous to Alaska in general and the Kenai Peninsula in particular in recent years.
What aid Washington, D.C., will send to the peninsula in future years depends largely on the recommendations of high-ranking congressional staffers. Nine people who work for the Senate Appropriations Committee chaired by Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens came to Kenai and Soldotna Thursday on a whirlwind tour of projects.
Lisa Sutherland, the committee's deputy staff director, led the group.
"These are the top dogs," she said. "These are the people who actually write the bills."
The staffers work for the senators, meeting with constituents, researching issues and interacting with agencies, she explained.
In Kenai and Soldotna they toured project sites and facilities such as the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska and the new Kenai River Center, which received federal funds. They also met with local officials and representatives from Native organizations and veterans groups.
"We want people to see what our problems are," said Sutherland, who is from Anchorage.
For example, the congressional staffers were able to sit down with representatives from the Peninsula Vet Center and peninsula chapters of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, American Legion, AMVETS and the Disabled American Veterans. The representatives discussed their experiences, concerns and recommendations about getting veterans' medical care on the peninsula rather than having to travel to Anchorage to receive benefits.
One of the visitors was Carolyn Apostolou, the professional staff member on the subcommittee that handles appropriations for the Veterans Administration.
"We specifically set this up so she could hear first-hand what is going on," Sutherland said.
The staffers plan to put directions in this fall's VA budget instructing the agency to contract with area doctors to provide VA services, she said.
Other projects the group is investigating in the area include:
n Erosion control and the proposed coastal trail along the river bluff in Kenai;
n Additions and distance learning capabilities for the Challenger center;
n Programs to aid disadvantaged youth;
n Low-income housing; and
n Potential Environmental Protection Agency projects involving the Kenai River Center, the Soldotna Wastewater Treatment Plant and the cleanup site at River Terrace RV Park in Soldotna.
Also on the itinerary were meetings with Kenai Mayor John Williams, Soldotna Mayor Ken Lancaster and Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley plus borough staff and assembly members.
After the series of meetings concluded, the group was scheduled to dine on the Kenai River and check out salmon fishing with host Bob Penney, a sport fishing advocate and member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.
The staffers include three from the appropriations committee, four from the subcommittee that oversees the VA and the Department of Housing and Urban Development and two from the subcommittee that oversees agriculture and rural development.
The group planned its peninsula visit with assistance from Becky Hultberg, the staff assistant for the congressional office in Kenai.
Before coming to the Kenai Peninsula, the D.C. delegation visited Prudhoe Bay and Bethel. Today the group is scheduled to visit Seward, followed by tours of Fairbanks, Anchorage and Southeast Alaska.
The fact-finding tours are an annual event.
Sutherland said the staffers always look forward to visiting the peninsula as both informative and enjoyable.
"Kenai is a good place to bring people," she said.
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