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Local government was a growth industry in Alaska in 2016. Wait, what?

  • Author: Devin Kelly
  • Updated: May 8, 2017
  • Published May 7, 2017

The latest employment statistics released by the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development weren't pretty, indicating the state has shed thousands of jobs over the past year, largely in oil, construction, state government and professional and business services.

Just three areas saw growth, state economists said in their announcement last week: health care, leisure and hospitality, and, oddly, given the recession, local government.

"It definitely is surprising," said Conor Bell, an economist with the Labor Department. "We're seeing these significant losses in state government; you would expect local government to follow suit."

Part of the reason for the job gains comes in the state's definition of what is "local government." The category includes tribal government as well as municipalities and school districts. And the federal government, in its own economic environment, largely funds Alaska's expanding tribes. Tribal governments have gained a few hundred jobs over the past several years, Bell said.

The North Slope Borough village of Anaktuvuk Pass in the Brooks Range recently added a tribal coordinator, using money from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, said Karlene Ticket, the liaison between the village and the regional tribal government. The coordinator was needed to help uninsured village residents make medical appointments.

In Southeast Alaska, the Juneau-based Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes reported 23 more employees this year than last — though employment was way down from 2005, when the organization had 423 full- and part-time employees, according to communications coordinator Raeanne Holmes.

The latest job gains for the Juneau-based tribes are tied to federal Department of Justice grants, Holmes said in an email.

Outside of tribal government, city and borough officials generally said they aren't cutting, but they've also stopped hiring.

"When money was flush, we didn't lose our minds and hire gobs of people," said Michael Powers, manager of the Kodiak Island Borough.

Powers said the borough did some consolidation after the 2008 recession, reducing some positions, and hasn't grown back since. "We've been holding the line."

Looking to the future, Powers and other administrators say they only expect cutbacks.

Roughly 40,000 people work in local government in Alaska, including part-time workers, according to the state's data. In October of last year, there were nearly 100 more jobs than at the same point the prior year.

Bell, the state economist, said the numbers were close enough to flat that he wouldn't call the gains "strong growth." But he said it's notable that major job losses have not been reported.

He said local government generally takes longer to shed jobs in a recession than the state. It takes time for decreased tax revenue to hit budgets, he said.

"Just because (local government) hasn't lost jobs so far doesn't mean it's not going to, necessarily," Bell said.

Some guesswork is involved in parsing the data. Because of privacy restrictions, the state does not publish or release the number of employees in a specific government administration or tribal government, or identify the types of jobs being gained or lost.

School district employment and seasonal jobs can swing the statistics, depending on when the school year or the season ends.

Bell provided data comparing local government jobs between the first three quarters each of 2015 and 2016. The highest-percentage local government job growth occurred in Kodiak, Wrangell and the census area that includes Tok.

The biggest percentage decreases were recorded in Skagway, Sitka and Haines, though in each case, the actual numbers were small. In Skagway, the data shows, the number of government, tribal or school workers went from 127 to 114 in the first three quarters of 2016, or a 10.5 percent reduction.

Michelle Gihl, the assistant deputy clerk for the Municipality of Skagway, chalked up the number to tourism and seasonal employment. The municipality hires about 15 people to handle the influx of visitors in the summer, Gihl said. The seasonal positions include groundskeepers, library clerks and museum assistants.

Other communities less reliant on tourism may be hurting more from budget cuts, Gihl said.

The data shows the most-populated parts of the state gained jobs in local government in the first three quarters of 2016. Anchorage grew 1.2 percent, or 109 jobs, and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough grew 4.1 percent, or 128 jobs.

Bell couldn't precisely account for Anchorage's growth because of the privacy restrictions, but city government hired several dozen new police officers in the past year, which may account for part of the growth, according to Lance Wilber, city budget director.

Most of Anchorage's local government employment is in education, though the Anchorage School District has cut positions the past few years in the face of budget gaps.

In the Mat-Su Borough, officials said local government job growth matched the booming regional population and ever-rising student enrollment. Two new elementary schools opened in the 2015-16 school year, said Catherine Esary, public information officer for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough School District.

Esary said the district has the highest pupil-teacher ratio and lowest administrative spending among the larger districts in Alaska. But she acknowledged the number of jobs in the district has been going up overall.

"Without knowing what our revenue stream is, we may be looking at some cutbacks," Esary said. "But we do have more employees over the past few years, and that would be because of growth in student enrollment."

In the Interior village of Fort Yukon, a few dozen people work for the Gwichyaa Zhee Gwich'in tribal government, from administrators to carpenters.

"We hire quite a few people, compared to the other businesses around (here)," said Ariel James, the office receptionist.

She said Fort Yukon's tribal government is mostly federally funded but also receives grants from its regional Native corporation, Doyon Ltd., and the regional tribal council, the Tanana Chiefs Conference.

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